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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventeen

Photo of Willow swimming ©copyright by Chloe Annetts 2020



The Great Upheaval


You must understand that a lot of us who are much older and more experienced with illness than you are also shaken by it. To stand by as a doctor unable to stop the spread of this dreadful disease is painful for all of us.


-Philip Roth, Nemesis



The weather is warming this week, the week we understand that the COVID summer is just starting, that despite Phase 1 re-opening in New York State, the virus still lurks among us ready to effloresce into a second wave if we do not distance, and wear masks if we cannot distance, and remain vigilant. At least I am upstate, I tell myself, where it cools at night, and I don't have young children at home who have been homeschooled and now have to be told they cannot go to day  camp, or swim in the neighborhood pools, or hang out with their friends. Maybe the same upscale houses I pass on my walks will set up their above-ground pools and/or open their in-ground pools soon. Shall I ask if I can take a dip when they are having dinner, perhaps, or early one morning when the disgruntled children are still in their light cotton pajamas? Oh, I have missed swimming since the SUNY pool shut down in early March. But this woe is a small one compared to so many others right now—friends who have lost jobs, friends who live alone and are feeling the psychological impact of their isolation, friends who have lost loved ones.


As a child, I would never have been in the city in the summer. Like other privileged city children I would have been evacuated to the country, away from the polluted  air and the city pools. Or I would have been sent away to sleepover camp, or taken a trip abroad. I would never have been permitted to walk barefoot on steamy sidewalks, or experienced the gush of water from the hydrants, or been allowed to sleep on a fire escape. The building where I lived as a child did not have a fire escape. I never  smelled fetid garbage or noticed rats rummaging for food. These childhood images are not mine. They exist only in photographs I have studied, photographs of a New York I have never known. In addition to the heat and humidity, which began at the end of May and often continued into my return to the city in September, I was innocent of the street sounds cascading into open windows, or the threat of polio or encephalitis in the city's pools. My mother, who was a doctor, never spoke of these contagions, even though she commuted to the city to work from our country home, as did my step-father, while my sister and I went to day camp and were minded by a nanny.  Even after the polio vaccine was available, and I finally understood what polio was, and how my family had been spared, I never considered that my mother might have been exposed or endangered as she worked in the hospital clinic. Like the frontline workers today, I do not think she would have considered not working. She had always wanted to be a doctor. Her Uncle Arnold was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna, she loved him dearly, and he encouraged her aspiration, unusual for a woman at that time whose family was far from wealthy. Incarcerated at Terezin, my great-uncle Arnold was a "camp" doctor, and saved many lives until he himself was too weak to work and was sent to Auschwitz to be killed. This family lore came down to us from one of the survivors of Terezin, for which we are grateful.


I cannot locate my anxiety today though I know it resides somewhere in the current downfall of the American Dream, of hopes dashed, of savings evaporated, of a vaccine and treatment months away. And though I have never been blind to the class divide in New York, my native city, I can feel it sharply as the COVID summer begins. Whereas I once had confidence in the nation's competence and my own, I am no longer so confident. Indeed, I am disgusted by the selfish defiance of so many Americans as we "open," and the heartless abnegation of the executive branch of our federal government in the face of this pandemic.  


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixteen

Photo: "Driveway Graffiti," one of many driveway admonitions in New Paltz written in adult hands, probably mostly for the children., or for all of us.  Others read: "Be Brave, " "Be Safe." ©copyright by Carol Bergman 2020


How Do You Feel?



The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.


-Sigmund Freud



The Governor, aka Governor Cuomo, is talking about how he really feels, not just how he feels but how he really feels. In his sonorous voice with the still thick Queens accent, he's explaining that such honest conversation is essential for our mental health during the pandemic, and he's decided to demonstrate. It's a valiant effort: he's worried, anxious, thinking about the families who've lost loved ones, and his own mother. He's modelling emotional honesty to his flock, the citizens of New York State, the nation, and even as far away as India, a NYU colleague has told me. Just hours later, traveling home from his 75th consecutive press conference, a photo pops up on his Facebook feed: he's fast asleep, his daughter on his shoulder. This is how he really feels: tired, protective of his daughter, loving. He's refueling for the next challenge, he's getting back to work as he sleeps. New York Disciplined. New York Tough.

As early as March 25th, Cuomo set up a Mental Health Initiative. He asked psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers to volunteer. Within hours, thousands had done so. An electronic help center was set up, more and more professionals volunteered, topping 6,000. A free hotline was announced: 1-844-863-9314

I decided to try it. In fact, I've used it twice. At first, I told myself that I wa calling out of journalistic curiosity. Does the hotline work? How does it work? And I was curious: can the Governor deliver yet again? But that evasive veil didn't last long. Which is to say, I was curious, but I was also making the call because I needed an empathetic ear and some concrete advice.

I had just taken a long solo walk on my favorite street in New Paltz. Mask off, mask on as soon as I saw people walking towards me. I hated it. I'd been anxious, even agoraphobic, as I left the apartment. New tenants, unmasked, and an inconsiderate handyman who also works in a prison, a petri dish for the virus.

Writers, even nonfiction writers, have vivid imaginations. Our minds click ahead into what might happen, what could happen, what in the non-writer world would be called"catastrophizing," amidst a catastrophe, if that isn't an oxymoron, or I don't know what. All those unmasked neighbors and workers scared me. If we are now into an era of defiance, what is in store for us?

I walked fast and then ambled disconsolately back to the car. I put my walking sticks away, opened the back windows, and took a deep breath. The sweet smell of freshly mown grass filled the car. I was relieved but also miserable. The mask had made me feel—really feel—claustrophobic, isolated, and desperate to take flight like the soaring catbirds I'd identified as I walked past an efflorescing meadow. If only I could morph into a catbird, I thought.

A young woman answered the phone in five seconds. Five seconds, dear reader! How could a young woman help me? I said to myself, not trusting that the helpline had vetted the volunteers' credentials.

She waited for me to speak, said a few kind words, how hard a time it is for all of us, told me her first name--Jenny. "I'm working virtually at home also," she said. I felt easier as my anxiety came out in a rush. She asked all the right questions and gave me the concrete advice I needed that particular day in that particular moment. The call lasted all of five minutes. Short and focused as it was, I felt fortified to press on with my day. Jenny's voice—just her voice, not text, or email, or video chat—was enough to comfort me.

A few weeks later, I used the hotline again with a different young professional and had a similar positive experience. And I'll use it again if I am feeling out of balance, frightened, lonely inside my mask, or bewildered beyond what feels like normal, writerly bewilderment.

I haven't seen any stats on how many people are taking advantage of this unprecedented free service, but I am sure the numbers of call-ins are in the hundreds of thousands, at least I hope they are. There are many sub-cultures in America where asking for emotional help is considered weak, or shameful. But even these feelings are real and must be acknowledged and overcome, as needed. All of us have to stay physically and emotionally strong during this already long siege. There are more challenges ahead. It's not over.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifteen

Photo: © copyright 2020 by Michael Gold, art and celebrity photographer. With thanks for his permission to use this flattering photo of the author.



Birthdays & Other Celebrations


There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.           


                             ― Albert Camus, The Plague


In every well-ordered society . . . the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand. 


     Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in a Supreme Court precdent-setting ruling, 1905


Everything is reduced to the essential act of witnessing, observing in detail, and writing. At least, for me. As I take my morning walk, I note the birdlife I am learning to name, and the bark on the trees I am learning to name. I have started a "study" book. My subjects, in no particular order, are: French, art and art history, birds and trees. And, finally, after many weeks, I am able to read fiction again. So that, in itself, is a celebration.

My birthday is March 10th. March 8th, the Sunday of that week, was our last social gathering before the "shelter in place" began. Blithely, we met some friends in our favorite local restaurant, I blew out a few symbolic candles on a delicious chocolate cake my husband had custom ordered, and we said our goodbyes, not realizing that we wouldn't be seeing each other in person for a while—or worse—a good long while. If we multiply this modest, individual story a thousand-fold, even a million-fold, we've got the physical distancing story on a global scale. It's immediate necessity made the pandemic palpable, and then ever present in our daily lives. As it still is.

But it's also children I'm thinking about as I write today, not only the more than one hundred children who are toxic shock sick, surprising every medical expert, but the healthy ones graduating from high school and about to start college. There are signs everywhere in town congratulating the New Paltz High School Seniors, Class of 2020. They will be having an unmasked virtual ceremony and silent hurrahs, mortar boards thrown in the air in the privacy of their homes, or on their front lawns and back decks. Maybe the local police and fire department will turn out with their sirens for a land-locked fly-by, and the hurrahs will reverberate all around the neighborhoods. Let us hope so; our young people deserve support and encouragement as never before.

What am I trying to say here? Just that a parent of a teen told me yesterday that after driving her 16-year-old to a ride-by birthday party, gifts thrown on the lawn, she felt sad. Another parent I spoke with doesn't want to accept such twisted configurations of life as a new normal, they are not normal at all, they feel both adaptive and maladaptive. Indeed, this mom says, we should prepare for recovery and safe re-opening by letting our minds and hearts drift to a virus-free life. Maybe if we will it, that future will happen before schools reopen in September, assuming they will reopen. Is this delusional or resilient? I am not sure, but I'm going to try it because, dear reader, I'm having nightmares about the premature "phased re-opening." Last night's dream was clear and informative: I was in a takeaway restaurant, no more curbside pick-up, and had forgotten to wear my mask, as had the woman taking my money. The dream resembled a stressful early morning foray to my local supermarket, my first in two months. I'd lost my shopper and had no choice. I could not believe the sloppy protocol and called the manager as soon as I got home. And though he took some responsibility for the behavior of an employee, he mostly blamed the customers for zig-zagging around and not paying attention. Maybe he is right, I cannot say. I just know that it was a...nightmare, and that I cannot do it again if I want to avoid exposure.

In every society since antiquity, a threat to a community's safety has required regulation and enforcement. Why are we so loathe to align ourselves with more pro-active western democracies—France, Britain, Germany, Canada—in the struggle against this lethal virus? What is wrong with us? Maintaining distance and wearing a mask is an individual civic responsibility, like jury duty, some have said. But compliance also requires mandates, even fines, as some citizens find restrictions loathsome, inconvenient and/or a challenge to American "freedom." This is wrong-headed thinking. We are not being forced to do anything at the point of a gun; we are a democracy, not an autocracy. Nonetheless, enforcement is a government responsibility during a national health emergency.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fourteen

Photo: © by Lola Alvarez Bravo (1903-1993), the first female Mexican photojournalist and lifelong friend to Frida Kahlo.



Friendship in a Plague Year



"When there is no connection to others, there can be no voice."


--Masha Gessen "The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic," in The New Yorker, May 5, 2020


"We live without feeling the country beneath our feet/

our words are inaudible from ten feet away."


              --Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet, 1933



I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends these days, past and present, new and old, near and far. I am stunned by the number of people who have touched in with me since global lockdown, and how many I have contacted—virtually,of course. When we begin to talk, we pick up as though no time has passed, and some of our conversations are long, intimate and revelatory. If the contact has been mostly professional thus far, it seems to morph into something deeper and this, in itself, has been both revelatory and satisfying. There has to be more than the pandemic that explains this, some cement that keeps us connected, however friable the consistency before the friendship lapsed and we reconnected, however superficial the connection before the pandemic.


The life-affirming premise of this blog post, therefore, is that friendship—attachment, connection—is one of the mortars that holds societies together, and that the collapse of friendship—either individual or between nations—is a challenging event, both personally and globally.


Sometimes a friendship falls away and there is no explanation. Perhaps we allow it to happen, or even will it to happen. We decide—unconsciously, consciously—that the friendship is not working, or has become disagreeable. We have grown apart or moved to another city and cannot abide using email or What’s App to sustain the relationship. As much as we thought we had in common at one time, we no longer have anything in common. One day we are friends, the next day acquaintances. We ask mutual friends and acquaintances how this once-upon- a time-friend is doing, whether they have heard from him or her. Mostly we feel disappointed and wonder if our former friend feels the same. Who will make the first move to reconcile or renew? And are there some friendships we must, of necessity, abandon or dissipate, like steam, into the past tense? And then the phone rings and it is this very fallen-away-friend calling to ask how we are doing and whether we are safe and well. And we are, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, pleased to hear from them.


In the most dire macro-cosmic scenario, a breakdown in human relations leads to war and genocide. For two years I worked on “Another Day in Paradise,” an anthology of stories by international humanitarian workers; two-thirds of the stories were about war. In the midst of the project came the World Trade Center attacks, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, and the war on Iraq. After the publicity for the book was finished, I needed a breather. The world looked a sorry place to me and I was blue about it. Neighbors fighting neighbors, cousins eviscerating the lives of cousins. I stopped writing for a while and then retreated to the country and started on my first murder mystery. Meanwhile, my relief worker friends moved into new and even more dangerous assignments. When they are in the field, it is a given that they are incommunicado; I have learned to accept this. I always remind myself that they are optimistic and competent people; their antidote to despair is to work and to help people. Indeed, many are front line workers in this current pandemic, either here or abroad. Several are working in refugee camps where, dear reader, more than 33 million children are living hardscrabble lives. I envy relief workers’ skills and fortitude, and their evolved capacity for fast friendship in the midst of disasters.


I remember meeting Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker writer, and later the editor of Paris Review, at a Starbuck’s a few months into my research for “Another Day in Paradise.” I’d read his book about the genocide in Rwanda. How had he recovered from working on that? Though I didn’t know him personally, I approached him—breaking my rule about privacy in public spaces—and told him about my project. He was very gracious and spoke to me for a while. Not having seen his byline recently, I wondered what he was working on. His answer was, “small stuff, something local.” In an oblique way, his reply said a lot about the recovery time necessary after immersing oneself as a journalist in a cataclysmic event, or living one as a citizen. The pandemic is big stuff for all of us, even more so for those who have been infected, or lost loved ones. I am confident that if we amplify our friendships, and reach out to those in need, we will #survivetogether.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirteen

A stand of trees on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Photo © by Carol Bergman 2020


Howie in Love




We must make decisions based on our best assumptions in an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty.

from a letter to the NYU community from Andrew Hamilton, President; Katherine Fleming, Provost; and Martin Dorph, Executive Vice President 4/20/2020


For this morning's expedition, a rainwalk on the SUNY campus. To whit, as I am reading "The Hidden Life of Trees," by a German forester with the medieval-sounding name of Peter Wohlleben, I began a more serious study of trees. Immediately, I note tree families, though these are not old forest trees; they have obviously been planted by an environmentally conscious landscape gardener.

Like humans, trees thrive in stands, or families. And as we are discussing physical distancing whilst we remain spiritually and emotionally connected, indeed we are discussing this daily, the stand of trees is an appropriate emblem of togetherness and mutual care.

A skinny skinny crane senses my approach and flies off. It has a huge wing span. Where is her mate? Where has she landed? Don't cranes fly around in pairs? Now there is thunder in the distance so I'd best get back to the car—weather can change abruptly here and there is a forecast of flash floods. But first, I snap some more pics. A rock has newly painted graffiti: Howie is in love. Goodness, how wonderful is that in the midst of so much uncertainty and anxiety. It is an apt reminder of life and love efflorescing.

Back home, it's time for more tea, emails, and the grade roster. This is a reality check: it's been a challenging term @ NYU. The last time we were in the classroom together was on March 4th. By the following week, we were working remotely. "It seems like a hundred years ago," one of my students said as we were saying our goodbyes, echoing how we were all feeling: sad, rueful, perplexed, worried. I had kept in touch with all of them between classes by phone and email, and watched sadly as several students drifted away, leaving apartments and jobs and the excitement and opportunity of city life behind to return to family in other towns, cities and rural villages. I hoped they wouldn't lose heart, I told them, and that I'd see them again F2F another term. "We'll begin again," I assured them. But no refund, as yet, is forthcoming from the university for the five or so weeks that were left in the term after the schools shut down and the shelter in place began; with the economy tanking, many will not be able to return to school or retake a course they'd already paid for. And the university's priorities also are complex. What would they do if everyone asked for a refund? What should they do? I know the answer to that rhetorical question, but it's personal, and only from my POV.

My students had not signed up for an online class, nor had I contracted for an online course, so we were all trying to adapt. Physical proximity, body language, non-verbal gesture are either absent or severely blunted in the Zoom gallery. I had resisted online teaching for many years for all these reasons. Now I had no choice, we had no choice, my students and I. I had to learn how to teach as a dis-embodied presence and to connect in new ways, quickly and without the requisite training. I can't say that after just a few weeks, I have succeeded. Is there something I'm missing? Probably. Best pay attention to the various webinars offered by the IT folks at NYU and get on with it, I say to myself, as we are still in the midst of what will surely be a long haul.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twelve

 A soaring Juvenile Bald Eagle taken at the Missouri River, southeastern South Dakota by Susanne Skyrm, a dedicated conservationist and nature photographer, ©copyright Susanne Skyrm 2020. With thanks to Susanne for permission to use this captivating photograph.



Birds of a Feather



"Hope" is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul /And sings the tune without the words /And never stops at all


The first vcrse of "Hope Is The Thing With Feathers" by Emily Dickinson circa 1861, published posthumously in 1891



I've always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson, and even memorized it a few years ago, but today I wanted to write my own version, a departure from the original: Hope is the thing with feathers/We're all #inthistogther/ No matter the weather. This little ditty gave me much pleasure, inconsequential as it is. There's probably a fourth line to complete the verse, but it's eluding me right now. Feathers, bellweathers, flocking together, I don't know. I often wake in the morning with sentences in my head. Today this poem wouldn't stop. Maybe it was "hope" that kept it going. Maybe it was the snow flurries; snow flurries in April always loosen my writer's brain. Or maybe it was the movement of the car. I was driving up the mountain on the way to my daughter's homestead to get some fresh eggs, home-made sour-dough bread (my son-in-law is cookin'), honey (from last year's hive) and apples, and to walk the dogs around the property, and indulge in some virtual hugs and long distance 6 ft.-apart-with-masks-conversation, when I thought of Emily Dickinson's poem and how it rhymes with #inthistogether.

And do the feathers in Dickinson's poem refer to birds? No, of course not, it's a metaphor, it isn't literal. Literal is me out on the deck watching the birds of prey—black vultures and turkey vultures, hawks, falcons and eagles—soar on the wind off the ridge and descend for a luscious meal. The pickings are plentiful round here: groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and other species I have not, as yet, identified. I've only been living free of concrete and embedded in nature for a couple of years. I'm learning, for example, that on some days the competition is fierce—eagles chasing off turkey vultures from their kill—other days it feels more peaceful, but that's only from my vantage. I'm not a bird so how could I know?

So engrossed was I the other day watching the display of these magnificent creatures that I missed my friend Norma's birthday, and by the time I remembered it was too late to call London. Happy Birthday, Norma. When I told her why I had missed her birthday, that I too was flying on the wind, out of the apartment and enjoying the fresh air and light, she asked if I was safe watching all those birds of prey. Of course, I explained. They aren't going to eat me.

Then I wondered. Would they? Maybe if I was road kill, which I am not planning to be anytime soon. And as I have deep respect for these powerful birds, I won't ever get in their way, I will just silently observe. I don't even need binoculars, though maybe I should pull them out now and again to get closer, though I wouldn't want to be too close.

A while ago, when I was at my daughter's for the weekend, looking after the animals, I took the compost out in the early morning, let the chickens out, started to spill the compost for them, and whoosh, a red-tailed hawk swooped down for breakfast right over my left shoulder. It was as though a tornado had suddenly come up without warning. I threw the pail in the air and screamed so loud the neighbors heard me. The hawk got clean away albeit without her breakfast, leaving a wake of terror, among chickens and human alike.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Eleven

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020


What We Have



Sometimes we don't know what we have until we've lost it.

Governor Cuomo, at his press conference, 4/17/2020



Our Governor, our leader-in-chief right now, our emotional intelligence mentor, our protector and kindred spirit, someone I'd like to invite to a dinner party, or take with me on a long walk and talk, not alone necessarily, though I know some of my single friends wouldn't mind. (They will have to stand in line.) He was talking about his mother, how he's beginning to realize what is most important, how being busy is no excuse for cancelling a date with her, or postponing a date with her. He is never going to do that again.

So we're learning, right? And not just about pathogens and pandemics, but about the goodness coursing through all of us and, more importantly, perhaps, intentional goodness, the act of kindness, paying attention to what we have, reaching out, volunteering, meeting our responsibilities, leaning out the window and singing in an ensemble of community spirit. The possibilities are endless, they will never end, even when this particular pandemic is over.

I understand all this, I see it clearly. But to be the recipient of someone else's kindness is harder for me. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm always observing, recording in my journalist's brain, peripheral to the action, on the outside looking in. Then, suddenly, I'm on the inside looking out, and it's #inthistogether.

I was at the mall waiting for my young volunteer writer friend, Sara, to load my groceries into the trunk. I waved goodbye from inside the car, window up, my new isolation chamber, and whammo, my battery was dead. I called AAA but they never came. Desperate, I called a friend, and then my mechanic, and when my friend arrived quickly, I called the mechanic to say not to come, but they both arrived at the same time. My friend, Alan, my mechanic, Billy. The battery charged immediately so we chatted in the sun for a bit, six feet apart, and then they were gone. My heart was full. I was grateful.

Days later, when I took the car in for an oil change and battery check, Billy's wife, Rose, who works in the office, refused to charge me for Billy's trip to the mall. So let me, at least, give Franz Auto, named after Billy Franz, a much deserved bump here: Route 32 North, New Paltz, NY. If you get there, say hello to everyone for me, especially their adorable black lab, Remy.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Ten

On The Road Again




On the road again/I just can't wait to get on the road again/The life I love is makin'music with my friends/And I can't wait to get on the road again.


-Willie Nelson



Nous avancions à l'aveuglette sans savoir où nous allions.


We were blindly moving forward without knowing where we were going.


French Sentence of the Day




I moved blindly the very first day I passed my driver's test, feeling the forward motion, not knowing where I was going, though I had traveled the roads so many times with grown-ups at the wheel. I announced to my parents that I was going to the movies in the nearby town with two friends. I didn't ask to borrow the car, which was a second car, so why should I ask? I told them. I was an arrogant teenager and the car made me even more arrogant. I was the only girl in my circle that had passed the test. The road was mine. I wanted the car and I took it.

It was still light when I left to pick up my friends. And then, suddenly, it was dark, and all those familiar roads were no longer familiar. I was lost. I took out the map and a flashlight and figured out where I'd gone wrong. I was late picking up my friends but didn't admit what had happened. They were crazy to trust me, a brand new driver, at the wheel at night for the first time. I can't believe I did that, that my parents were so sanguine and casual. Maybe they thought I'd calm down, that my restlessness would abate.

I was sixteen, the age children were allowed to take the wheel in New Jersey. My step-father had told me unequivocally it was time I learned to drive. Wasn't I already a very capable back-seat driver? Joke, of course. But he understood my fierce independence and honored it.

We were alone the day he took the risk. He pulled the car into a parking lot, got out, told me to scoot over and get going, he'd stay by my side. This we did without even the requisite Learner's Permit, and for several days thereafter, until I was ready for the test. We lived in New York. I could not drive into the city from our weekend home until I was eighteen. But the freedom of the roads in the small lake community was now mine, and I grabbed it.

I had an unexpected hiatus from driving for the ten years I lived in London. We didn't have a car for most of that time, and only my husband took the very rigorous test, which he didn't pass until the third round. And though I decided I couldn't be bothered, by relinquishing the wheel to him, I'd given up a piece of my emancipated youth. We bought a right-hand drive Volvo and set out on adventures everywhere, which was compensation enough, I suppose.

Strange that this memory of learning to drive has returned to me in the midst of this pandemic, that it surfaced in my journal like a dream, and is now being expanded here to the beat of Willie Nelson's song. I think it is because we are in stasis and that the pleasure of getting into the car to go someplace is so restricted—gas, an oil change, groceries. So it's a fantasy of flight, and a pleasant one.

The other day we got into the car and drove up the mountain, desperate for air and light. I drove and my husband rode shotgun on the way up, and then we switched and I drove on the way down. We had surfaced from our incarceration, if only for a moment, and were wind-whipped and happy for the rest of the day.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Nine

Botanical Illustration © copyright by Elizabeth Simonson 2020



Where Nature Could Be




This is the first thing/I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe/within a wood

–Philip Larkin



Wildness matters more now than it ever has. We're urbanizing at a pace unprecedented in human history...We have to look at the landscapes we live in as places where nature could be.

              –Thomas Rainer, "Planting in a Post-Wild World."



The car is an isolation chamber, the car is a portal to the outer world, the car is a companion, the car is a storage space for Clorox wipes and alcohol and surgical gloves. I travel up the mountain to my daughter's homestead to collect eggs and the masks she has been sewing in her solitary sweatshop, two for Jim and me, another six for the restaurant workers at our favorite cafe who are still doing takeaway. Time passing, time unstoppable, blossoms on the trees in the orchard and the first round of spraying has begun. Fungicides. Pesticides.

The car radio is tuned to funky music that segues into a prayer. By mistake, I've hit an evangelical station. No matter, I'll take anyone's blessing these days. Holy week, and as I write, it's the first night of Passover. No man or woman is an island, no man or woman is more exceptional than any other. The plague does not passeth over.

At Passover seders in what seems like a long-ago life, my favorites were those that modernized the text, that took into account contemporary life and challenges by introducing poetry and current events. People of the Book revising the book. But tonight, as I write, I've been thinking about my friend Liz Simonson, a landscape gardener based in Woodstock, NY. I called her to ask some questions, a mini interview. She's back at work, she told me, designing and maintaining native gardens.

I envy her daily commune with nature. If we all—globally and historically speaking—had shared an intimacy with the morsels of plant life, and a reverence for the earth to which it is bound, as she does, maybe, just maybe, we might have avoided the impasse of this lockdown, a life form running rampant on every continent.

Liz grew up in suburban New Jersey, majored in psychology in college, and did not begin to study plants until she moved upstate in the late 1980's. The property where she lived at the time was overgrown; she began to clear it out. Eventually, she owned her own nursery. "When I read about a plant, I don't forget about it," she says. Plants are magical to me. They are exquisite. They last through storms and seasonal change. Their root systems survive the winter." And they will survive this winter of our discontent, also.

Recently, Liz has started to draw plants, an ancient art known as "botanical illustration." Does she learn more about plants by observing them in minute detail? Absolutely. Might a writer do the same? Is there an analogy between drawing a plant and writing a plant? Can we transpose what we see or experience onto the page so that it comes alive and the self that writes is felt and known?

Rhetorical questions answered only by continuing practice and discipline.

I thank my friend, Liz, for her inspiration this evening, and for her devotion to preserving, healing and amplifying the environment in which we all must live.


Whether we are urban, suburban or rural, we can join Liz Simonson in the creation of landscapes where nature could be:

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Eight

Photo © copyright by Jim Bergman 2020


Greetings from This Week's Epicenter



 If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.    


                                       --Fred Rogers



I prepare to take down the garbage wearing gloves and my hijab. I make certain no-one is on the walkway or the two flights of stairs, that I have the pathway to the dumpster and recycle bins to myself. I spray the lid of the bin with alcohol and make sure no neighbors are in close proxmity. This is shared space; everyone touches what I will be touching.


I have never avoided neighbors before, on the contrary. A New Yorker born and bred, I'm chatty and outgoing. I miss chatting to the postal worker (from Haiti), the SUNY students who work in the local health store, the lifeguards at the SUNY pool. I miss learning their names, hearing their stories. I cannot satisfy my journalist's curiosity, either. It's like someone has pressed a mute button in my life.


I'm grateful, of course, for long walks in a revelatory landscape, the hawks and falcons flying overhead like spirit birds watching over us. And I'm grateful for all social media, Zoom, etc. etc. etc. and my dear friends who suggest Zimmer parties, more FT calls, WhatsApp calls all around the world, etc.etc.etc. and so forth, as the King of Siam once said. And I'm grateful for all the students on my NYU roster who have hung in and are still writing.


Will you be my neighbor? Of course. Will you be my neighbor forever and ever, metaphorically speaking, virtually speaking? Of course. Despite our sometimes Heavenly, sometimes Hellish Isolation, let us not ever forget this. We will return to three-dimensional neighborliness and daily connection, I am sure of it. And I know those connections will be richer and deeper when we get there.


But now that we have a time-line of sorts from our scientists—and it's a long one—is it more helpful to project ourselves into the future beyond the pandemic, or to live day by day, moment by moment? What is your preference, dear reader? I seem to toggle between the two, and sometimes I get it wrong; I haven't paid attention to my mood or my equilibrium. I take a walk and start the day again, or I call a friend, or interrupt my husband who is trying to make progress on a media kit he is writing for a client.


The complex where we live, opposite what's left of the subdivided Apple Hill Farm, used to be an apple cooler. A clever architect re-purposed its design so that it still looks rustic and integrated into the landscape. The sunsets over the ridge to the west are magnificent. There's a gazebo on a lawn out front, communal space, now abandoned. And the outdoor bank of metal mail boxes are contiguous, inviting conversation. I see a neighbor opening a box and wave hello, then pull up my hijab, and wait my turn.








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