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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Two

Two German-speaking Viennese women. My mother is on the left, our cousin, Fritzi Burger, the Olympic ice skating champion, on the right. The Kindle edition of "Searching for Fritzi" is available on Amazon.

 

Studying German in a Plague Year

 

 

History exists in a constant state of revision as we learn more about the present and the world that preceded it.

 

                             -Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

 

 

I was listening to a NY Times Daily podcast by a Berlin based reporter who spoke perfect English, but I also was understanding all the background German before it was translated. I know that we've all changed immeasurably during this past year, but I could not account for this epiphany, if that is what it was. I took a deep breath. It was hard to believe what was happening. What was happening?

 

There was a time when my brain and my heart would have shut down at the sound of German, or a German accent. I wrote about this sensory/cognitive dissonance in my 1999 memoir, Searching for Fritzi. As I was working on that book, I took a German language course at NYU because I truly wanted to "get over" this block, especially when encountering a young German or a young Austrian.

 

On the first day of class, when everyone stated why they wanted to learn German, I was mesmerized by everyone's stability and common sense. One person was an opera singer, another a business woman traveling frequently to Germany, another had a German boyfriend. My blood pressure was rising as I anticipated what I could say: "Most of my family were murdered in the Holocaust and I have a block…" My voice trailed away. The class and the professor went quiet. No euphemisms such as "perished" in that sentence; I'd long before abandoned any softening words. Then, at the break—it was summer, I remember—the professor, aus Salzburg, came up to me as I was munching on a peach and perusing a bulletin board. I was in a fugue state, very distressed, not really concentrating on the notices. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ever so gently, "Are you okay?" and I answered, "No, absolutely not, but I will try to stay." And that's what I did: I stayed. When the draft of my memoir was finished, I sent it to this wonderful woman and we met for lunch. But I haven't studied German since.

 

Then came Covid, a surfeit of time, classes online, apps, more French, my second language since High School, amplified when I was living in London and traveling to France. I had never thought about German, or wanted to think about German and when I traveled to Germany I often wanted to leave as soon as I got there.

 

And then, suddenly, years later, in the midst of a plague year—is there a connection I wonder—I decide to study German, my parents' Mother Tongue. They spoke it all the time to each other, but never to their children, not unusual in an immigrant or refugee family.  

 

I remember my erudite lawyer stepfather trying to convince me that Goethe, Heine, and Kafka should be read in the original. He had these books on his shelf if I ever wanted to study German and borrow them, he said. I never paid attention though I did read those classics in translation.

 

So, it's time, perhaps even past time, to take advantage of this gift: German is in my ear, it belongs to me and my heritage as much as the genocide.

 

A couple of terms ago, I had a young German in my NYU class. He traveled back to Germany to be with his family during the pandemic, but we've kept in touch. I can't wait to tell him my good news, to greet him in German, and perhaps generate a sentence or two.

 

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Virus Without Borders : Chapter Seventy-One

Yusef's spiffy car for pick up and delivery, a service that was appreciated during the height of Covid.

Conversations With Anti-Vaxxers

 

 

Nobody is voiceless.  There are only people whose voices are not heard.

 

-Margaret Reukel, "Late Migrations"

 

 

I suppose it is a progressive writer's prerogative to assume she has the right, even the mandate, to tell the stories of the voiceless under-educated, semi-literate populace. Of course, in this assumption there is unacknowledged condescension and judgment. A friend of mine on a diet regimen said to me the other day, "I no longer judge anyone who obviously needs to lose weight. I need to lose weight." There is a lot of wisdom in that decision. And if we apply this wisdom to the anti-vaxxers, we may get to a place in our body politic we have not as yet imagined.

 

So, with this approach in mind, I decided to do some anecdotal reporting in my small town. I began at one of my local laundromats, owned by Yusef, an entrepreneurial Palestinian-American. All through the height of Covid, he provided pick-up, delivery and curbside. There are benches and chairs outside, a working bathroom, and helpful attendants during the weekdays who I started to talk to after I was vaccinated. One is vaccinated, two are not vaccinated. One has an autoimmune disease and her doctor is worried she might have an adverse reaction, the other is pregnant, working flat out, because she has to, until delivery day. "I don't want to take any chances," she said. Therefore, we can't exactly say that these two hard-working women, who haven't had the luxury of not working despite their exposure to Covid during the height of the pandemic, are "anti" anything. They have both made personal, informed decisions. And they both are still wearing their masks, as am I in certain situations.

 

A laundromat is a shared communal space, a level playing field; you need to be here, and I need to be here. And though I usually read one of my door-stop books —this  month, Louis Menand's, "The Free World"—or  answer some emails, I also like to chat to people I wouldn't meet in my everyday professorial life. Most customers are not reading books—they are watching the TV, or talking on their cell phones, or folding their laundry with care. One day I noticed a very large woman with lots of tattoos. She'd been outside smoking, and then she was next to me as I was loading a machine and she was unloading a machine.

 

"So how are you doing?" I asked.

 

"Fine, nearly done with this machine if you'd like it."

 

"Great, that size is the one I need. This one is too small. Family good?"

 

"Yeah, we are okay."

 

"Vaccinated?"

 

"No, scared of needles."

 

"Oh, sorry to hear that. I have a friend who is scared of needles. They put him on a gurney, and before he knew it, he'd had a shot."

 

"Oh, so in case he fainted, he was already lying down."

 

"Exactly. And they turned his head away."

 

Laughter.

 

"I guess I should get a shot. I've got a weak chest."

 

"That sounds like a good idea."

 

Anti-vaxxers. They may well be friends, family, colleagues, or neighbors. They are not monolithic, and  hard as it may be for those of us who have been vaccinated, they deserve our consideration, compassion and respect.

 

That said, no one in my immediate circle has hesitated to get a vaccine, or refused to get a vaccine, or doesn't "believe," in a vaccine, or thinks there is a chip that will be injected into their bodies. So I am fortunate, privileged in fact, to have a body of knowledge that allows me to think clearly about my choices. The confusion and conspiracy theories that abound are a consequence of an educational system that has never accommodated the egregious divides in the United States between class and caste.

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy

The Last Scene Before Flying With the Dove to Paradise.  ©copyright Malak Mattar 2021

Malak often includes a Dove of Peace in her paintings.

 

 

Ceasefire

 

 

 

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

 

-John Lennon

 

Dedicated to all children growing up in war zones.

 

 

 

Malak Mattar, my young friend in Gaza, put up this FB post today: "I survived. I'm officially a four Israeli attack survivor by the age of 21."  But is this Le Fin, the end of this horror movie? Probably not.  Geopolitics, realpolitik, real lives underneath those falling bombs and rockets. Children in Palestine and in Israel and in Afghanistan growing up in war zones, suffering from PTSD, learning to hate, dreaming of escape or revenge. And what about the soldiers and flyers and bombers, what about their PTSD as they become yet more efficient killing machines?

 

Did the bombing in Gaza wipe out Covid? Of course not. But now that there is a ceasefire, the humanitarian agencies can get back in to do their work: house the homeless, provide medical assistance, vaccinate, even set up temporary schools and play spaces for the children.

 

I spoke to MacKay Wolff, a former relief worker for UNRWA, the UN agency set up in 1948 to serve  the Palestinians –and  Jews—displaced  by the war against the British colonial regime. "I hope they are using the 80 schools UNRWA set up as shelters," MacKay told me before the ceasefire. UN workers are tasked with protection—of everyone—to treat all those in need equally. It is not always easy, but that is what they are trained to do.

 

Gaza is flat, and unlike Israel, has no bomb shelters, my Palestinain friend Ahmad told me.  I had not realized that the terrain was indefensible, and was shocked to hear there are no shelters. In that case, I hope the Israelis are not bombing the schools, I thought. Did I say that thought aloud? I'm not sure. I was feeling distressed that day, and so was Ahmad. I knew that my Israeli cousins were safe, or safe enough, in shelters.

 

MacKay had written a story for my book, "Another Day in Paradise," about his posting in the West Bank during the first intifada. How many years ago was that? Too many. There are now 5.6 million Palestinians—the original refugees and their descendants—registered with the UN agency. How many refugees? Too many.

 

Strange that this very week the citizens of New York State began navigating without masks, enjoying freedom of movement and a renewed sense of safety. Most of us—if we have not lost a loved one, or our jobs, or have long term effects of Covid—are feeling positive, even euphoric, about our survival. I wish the same for Malak, her family, and all her wonderful activist friends. May they live in peace.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Nine

 

When the World Sleeps © copyright Malak Mattar 2021

 

Cri de Coeur

 

 

any man's death diminishes me, because I

am involved in Mankinde,

 and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls

It tolls for thee.

-John Donne

 

Bombardments and rampaging mobs in Israel and Palestine. And how desperately sad this is. Just over a year ago these adversaries who, in truth, are cousins, all children of the desert, were cooperating. The UN had reminded Israel that they are the occupying power and have responsibility. They had done well with the pandemic, but Gaza and the West Bank were rabid with Covid, aid and vaccine distribution was necessary, obligatory. Now the cooperation is over, and all medical aid has stopped.

 

It began with threatened evictions of an already displaced refugee population in East Jerusalem, police actions, retaliatory actions and more reactions, escalation to war. It has to stop. Finalement, as the French say, it has to stop. An intervention is needed, and very soon, someone as adept as John Kerry, a skilled diplomat and humanitarian; he did wonders as a mediator in Northern Ireland.

 

To understand we must return to an historical timeline and our interpretation and telling of this timeline will depend upon our point of view, our politics. So let me make mine clear: I am a descendant of Holocaust refugees and survivors, a secular non-observant American Jew, and I am not a Zionist. So I say, with a note of sarcasm, even contempt, bless the imperialist enterprise dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and the pursuant scramble for spheres of influence. Bless the Brits and their mandate, the displacement of the Palestinian people, their cynical promise to the desperate Jews for Britain's own oil-greedy, strategic, geopolitical benefit, a sordid history. Dear reader, if I am getting some of the timeline wrong, forgive me. I have family in Israel, dear Palestinian friends here in the US. I want them to know: this writer is paying attention.

 

Every so often, I receive a Facebook message from a desperate person who is a friend of a friend living in the underdeveloped world. This week it was from a young woman in Gaza, a friend of Malak Mattar, the twenty-something artist I have written about before. Another of her images graces this post; her work is as powerful as Picasso's Guernica or Diego's murals. She was studying in Istanbul and returned to her family in Gaza in time for this new war. Together with other activists, she has started a Go Fund Me for the children of Gaza. I have not been able to corroborate their bona fides, as yet, so will not post the link here, but hope to do so soon. Needless to say, it's difficult to stay in touch, internet service in and out. 

 

In the meantime, these hashtags:

 

#GazaUnderAttack   #endtheoccupation #savethechildren #truthandreconciliation  #twostatesolution

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Eight

 

The Minnewaska Ridge in May © Carol Bergman 2021

 

Get Away

 

 

The world was ever,

 elsewhere

…no

way where we were

was there

 

-from "The Long Song," Nathaniel Mackey

 

 

  

 

A dear friend died this week. It wasn't a Covid related death, except it was. The facility where he had been living for a while had so much Covid these past months that his family could not get in to see him enough. Isn't it time to rethink how we "house" the sick and the elderly? And because it's no wonder that a virus can spread like a wild fire in multi-generational households and communities—slums and close-to habitations, institutions, all of the residents and workers at risk—it leaves me wondering what's best in the long term for our survival, and the survival of the planet. In it together? Only partially so.

 

60 Minutes on Sunday had an item on the flight to Mars, a mini helicopter hovering over the surface searching for boulders that might contain fossils of living or once living organisms. It's breathtaking, this achievement, this get away to another planet. It takes our minds off what we need to do here. Between my lines there's also the worry: If we ever do get there to form a "colony," will we replicate the insane violence, war, and callous disregard for our environment we have managed to perfect here on Planet Earth? Will Mars become a war zone?  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are twenty-five wars raging on our planet as I write. Yet, we carry on creating havoc in the world, letting ships carrying desperate migrants flounder at sea, selling arms to militant nations, spilling sewage into our rivers. And what's this about not sharing vaccination patents? Really? Do the words "global pandemic" register? In another time, Dr. Jonas Salk released the patent of the polio vaccine, no discussion.

 

Post-vaccination, I've started to hear friends, colleagues, students, and family mumbling and grumbling about the need, the absolute necessity, of getting away. How awful has it been for most of us? Really, how awful has it been? If we haven't had Covid, or we are not mourning a loved one who has died of Covid, how awful has it been? The answer is rhetorical, in part—not that awful compared to many others. Scary enough, awkward, too, as we navigated the logistics of everyday life, I'll concede that. But if we've had food in the house, a job, access to medical care? Not that awful.  Most people I know have survived very well indeed. Cooking fancy NY Times recipes: that's a luxury of the privileged few. Selling a home for a gazillion dollars when others are living in dire poverty? Not that awful. Having the technology to Facetime and Zoom? Not that awful. Silver linings? Plenty of them. I even took care of my tooth ache. My dentist had outstanding protocol and expensive protective equipment. Thank you. Apart from the medical necessity, it was a place to go, someone to talk to, and something to do. Dentists talk a lot. Don't they know we can't answer? Usually I mind not being able to answer. Not this time.

 

Missing people was the worst for me, not being able to touch and hug, enjoy micro-connections with strangers, but travel, no, I didn't miss that. I was already upstate when the lockdown in New York City started. I didn't need to get away, and I don't need to get away now; I am away. All I have to do is step outside the door and breathe.

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Seven

Writers and the Writing Life in a Plague Year

 

 

 

Removing a published book from circulation because of the authors' conduct and resulting adverse public opinion against the author or the subject, no matter how strong and justified, contradicts important principles of free speech and open discourse.

 

                               -The Authors Guild

 

 

I'm about 200 pages into Blake Bailey's mesmerizing, beautifully written biography of Philip Roth. Withdrawn from distribution because of some horrendous allegations, it is already a collectible. And if, heaven forfend, the allegations are true, Blake Bailey's publishing career is over. Worse, much of Roth's archive has been sequestered until 2050—a contractual arrangement between Roth and Bailey—which means that no other biographer—perhaps even a female biographer (and wouldn't that be interesting) will be able to access them until then.

 

Many men of Roth's generation, coming of age before the women's movement, are notably stunted in their relationships with women. They still use foul language, or stare and glare, or have expectations of a woman's role. This is a given. So, when two guys get together and schmooze, who knows how they'll boast, make up stories, smear the women who have hurt them, distort their own emotions because they cannot express them clearly. Bailey wanted Roth to feel safe enough to give him access to everything—his papers, his tapes, his drafts, so he probably let Roth rip. And if Bailey, too, had some shame about past behavior, it's interesting to wonder if he shared any of it with Roth, or remained silent. I am sure that neither Roth nor Bailey anticipated that a Roth biography would be silenced.

 

Philip Roth had a strong social conscience. His masterwork, The Plot Against America foretold the Trump presidency and the political and social tensions that have followed in the public sphere. I think he would have been heartbroken that his biographer has been cast out by his publisher and his agent without his day in court. I am almost certain he would have spoken out for him fiercely, as I am today. I had thought we were all innocent until proven guilty. I was wrong.

  

Cancel culture, denouncement, unproven allegation and accusation, is every writer's—indeed, every American's—nemesis, or should be. We do not live in China, we do not live in Russia. This is, ostensibly, a country with a free press absent the pressure of the marketplace. And that's a big statement. "The business of America is business,"  someone said as advertising chatter started to permeate the radio air waves back in the 1920's. The FDA regulated that chatter for a while—a certain amount of ad minutes per hour—now it is totally deregulated. But that's radio. What about books, newspapers and magazines? Deliver the reader to the consumer is the mantra. Unless a publication is privately funded, or grant funded, there is no immunity from economic pressure. More so now during the pandemic as companies fail, falter or consolidate.

 

As it happens, Roth wrote a book called Nemesis, one of his best as it is not over-written or adolescent in its sexual longings; it's a mature book about a polio epidemic. Indeed, he wrote many fine books, and many not so fine books, using the events and people in his life as inspiration, and creating a narrative persona that was very close to his own. It's an unusual body of work spanning many years. Like Roth himself, it evolved.

 

My sense thus far in my reading of the biography is that Bailey understood Roth, without judgment, which is why, in my estimation, he was chosen as an "authorized," biographer, not that "authorized" means that much these days. But the two writers' affinity is unmistakable, despite the age difference. Although he did a lot of interviewing, Bailey lets Roth and his work speak without much direct questioning in the text, a bit like a cinema verité movie without an interlocutor. Perhaps this was not the best decision in the current circumstances, as it leaves the biographer open to accusations of misogynist complicity. But it's the narrative device Bailey chose to tell Roth's story, and it is successful. I can't put the book down. What a shame that others may not get to read it. Will it become contraband like Henry Miller's  Tropic of Cancer, smuggled into the United States in the dead of night? That is what happens when a book goes underground: it becomes samizdat as in the days of Soviet repression and censorship.

 

It is a "complex fate" to be an American, Henry James said, from the vantage of  a life abroad where—as a gay man—he  felt emancipated from the Puritanical persecuting spirit. Many Americans have suffered from this persecuting spirit—think of the Salem witch trials, or the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lives and reputations have been destroyed needlessly. And they are still being destroyed today.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Six

Spring blossoms, a reminder of the cycle of life.  Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

 

As Time Goes By; An Interlude

 

 

Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.

 

― Marcel Proust

 

 

In Memoriam: Dudley Stone

 

 

And it's nearly May, 2021. The other day I almost forgot that the year had turned from 2020 to 2021, the brain's way of processing pain: suppression. Psychologists recommend that we dip into the flow of—normal  —life slowly. Is this possible? We've been holding our breath and now we are gasping fresh air, meeting friends and family, hugging everyone once we've established vaccination status. No more elbow bumps. No more masks. Oh, you have a face! I remember that face. Big lips, small lips, I can see your lips, the expression on your face. I can read you again. I can, literally, see you again. Oh, you are not on Zoom, you are here in all your corporeal reality. This is, truly, a miracle.

 

The other day, at Main Course in New Paltz, NY, I saw the young woman at the register who had texted me early in the pandemic to ask if there was anything she could do to help, such as shopping, for example. She had started graduate school,  and way back before the lockdown, she'd asked if she could interview me for  an assignment, which is how she knew me beyond ordering food at our favorite go-to restaurant in town where, happy to say, she still works. I hadn't needed her to shop for a while and fallen out of touch, now here she was again. First things first, a big thank you for helping us out in those early nerve-wracked pre-mask-mandate days when it felt dangerous for those in our age group, the more vulnerable age group, to go into a supermarket. Oh, it was wonderful to "see" her again and to be able to thank her in person.

 

The next day, my husband went into the city for the first time in more than a year. I was skittish. This was more than a toe into the water. But he was determined. A tournament table tennis player, he had missed his friends and the intense athletic effort he'd been used to. Zoom calls twice a month with his pals weren't enough, to say the least, and he'd been trying to stay in shape on his own without the incentive of competition. Our apartment is a gym—two bikes, a rowing machine, and weights. Will this apparatus soon become artifact? Our local gym and pool are open again, by appointment and Covid questionnaire only, please, and I am so relieved I can alternate laps and the elliptical machine with walking.

 

And, then, yesterday morning, my city friend, Nancy, and her sweet pooch, Rudy, came to visit on their way back into town after a two-day getaway. This was as overwhelming as the first hug my daughter gave me on my birthday back in March, which as time goes by, feels like yesterday. I am teary just writing about it. I met Nancy in the parking lot behind our apartment complex where she was walking Rudy, we ripped off our masks, and had a big hug. Oh, my goodness!!!

 

And then, and then, and then, an invitation arrived on email from Alan for a Mediterranean meal with mutual friends in celebration of our release from pandemic incarceration. I can't wait.

 

So, I suppose, a kind of euphoria has set in, the euphoria of survival: most of us have made it through this terrible ordeal. And though we continue to mourn the loved ones we have lost, we must not minimize the experiences, connections and skills we have gained in this challenging interim in our lives. Indeed, dear reader, we are permitted some happiness in this one small moment in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Five

Yenka and Adam in the mountains. Their immediate environment has sustained them during the pandemic. It's a protected UNESCO Heritage Site nominated for its biodiversity. Photo © copyright Zuleika Henry 2021

 

Sustainable Living in a Plague Year; A Love Story

 

 

We will never stop fighting, we will never stop fighting for this planet, for ourselves, our futures and for the futures of our children and grandchildren.

 

-Greta Thunberg

 

Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it.

 

-Arapaho Proverb

 

 

Yenka Honig and Adam Rose live in a modest house in Aramengo, a small village, pop 600, nestled in the foothills of the alps in Northern Italy. How did two Brits end up here? Both were born and raised in London; they grew up together, their doctor fathers friends since medical school. "I asked Yenka to marry me when we were both eight, but she refused," Adam tells me at the beginning of our recent Zoom call. Yenka, model beautiful with her long hair and make-up free face was in charge of the iPad, which worked fine, I assured her, even though they were sitting outside on their patio. I asked her to turn the camera around so I could see their vegetable garden, the hills in the background, and the darkening sky. "We're in the midst of a drought," Adam said. "Climate change, of course."

 

It was late in the day for them, early in the morning for me. I was grateful for the modern technology that enabled this visit, although it is oddly antithetical to how Adam and Yenka prefer to live each day: embedded in nature. And though Adam has been teaching on Zoom, it is also counter to his hands-on well-studied teaching method. In a recent video posted on You Tube, he is sitting on the ground next to a bed of wild violets explaining their sometimes poo-like odor to his invisible audience. He's a raconteur, Yenka quieter but thoughtful. I knew that their life journeys had taken them across the globe in opposite directions until 2012 when they found each other again back in the UK. "He walked in and a lightening bolt lit up my parents' house," Yenka said,  It meant a move from Los Angeles where she had been a Shiatsu/Seitai practitioner touring with rock bands, to Italy where Adam had already been living for a long time. Married to an Italian, he had two daughters, gotten divorced, and created Ecowise Italy, a company dedicated to immersing school children in the natural world.

 

Pre-pandemic the tours and classes were constant. Undoubtedly, they will continue apace as lockdown ends and vaccinations ramp up. The  27 member countries of the EU are behind as  distribution must be equitable, rich nations subsidizing the poorer nations, a utopian ideal realized. "We live in a community," Adam explains, "and most people here still live close to the land."  It's one reason, among many, Yenka says, she left the United States without regret. "I couldn't get affordable health insurance, for starters." Adam folded her into the business as a photographer and IT maven. The survivor of an aneurysm at aged 24, she is beloved for her courage, compassion and sense of fun. 

 

I thought of the move my husband and I had made from the city to upstate New York. Though our daughter and son-in-law had de-urbanized more than a decade ago, and we'd visited often, we hadn't changed our city ways. In our apartment water was plentiful and we ran it while washing dishes without thinking that it originated in the Catskill Watershed, and that it might one day run dry. The words drought or scarcity—of  natural resources—was  not in our vocabulary. But once we moved, we quickly adapted, paying rapt attention to the cost of our utilities, the shift to solar power on our daughter's property, and the reason for it. Now, when friends come to visit, we prevail upon them to take short showers and turn off lights they are not using. We hope that these admonitions will raise their consciousness and that they will remain our friends.

 

Many city dwellers headed north as the pandemic hit, bought up houses and rented apartments gentrifying the county. "We had the same situation here," Adam said. Will these opportunistic urban migrants return to the city with a new understanding of the amount of energy a city uses and other environmental degradations? Will cities eventually cease to exist and become artifacts of a dystopian age?

 

A sustainable planet begins with every individual, every family, every government, local and national. It includes universal health care, food and water supply, affordable housing, the protection of the bees that pollinate our flowering plants and the habitat we continue to destroy with our careless disregard.

 

For information about virtual tours, contact Yenka and Adam @  www.ecowiseitaly.com

 

     

              

 

 

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Four

For those who remember what Gloria said when she turned 50, this is what 87 looks like. Stunning.

 

 

Gloria, Where Are You?

 

 

I can go on the road— because I can come home. I come home—because I'm free to leave.

 

Gloria Steinem, "On the Road"

 

 

I received an invitation to Gloria Steinem's three-floor upscale Manhattan apartment. Would I like to visit, peruse the memorabilia of the Women's Liberation Movement dating back to the 1960's, and perhaps have a cup of green tea, sit and chat for a while, toast Gloria's 87th birthday? As my visit would be managed by Google Arts & Culture, I'd be unable to ask any probing questions, however. In fact, the visit would only be virtual, and not interactive, not even a chat function, more like a museum tour. That stung. I wonder if Gloria knows about it? As a former investigative journalist herself, I am certain she would not approve of the anonymity of Google's Street View tool. Indeed, the apartment was desolate as I entered, no human in sight except for those framed on the walls. Yes, the bookcase, of course, that is of interest, but was it enough? No. I was looking forward to seeing Gloria in person. I wondered if I would bring up my connection with Ms. Magazine. It was brief, but unforgettable. I had been assigned an article, what I cannot remember. Just the very fact that I was working for Ms., that in itself was heavenly. And there were editorial meetings and social occasions and we once or twice must have said hello. But Gloria, where are you now? On the road again? I read somewhere that you fled to California as the pandemic lockdown began, leaving your home to the Google curators. Maybe you are living in a pod with your good friend, Alice Walker. Maybe you will stay in California and never return to the townhouse. Maybe you will end your life in California. Maybe the townhouse will become a customized mausoleum, a structure planned well in advance of a person's death, by the person herself.

 

What a strange experience, dear Gloria. How much you have meant to women of the Second Wave, what an iconic figure you have become, honored in life as you certainly will be in the after-life.  And have you aged a hundred years this year, as all of us have, no matter our chronological age? Are you 187 and still counting? Has time collapsed or expanded for you? How are you feeling? Healthy? You are a breast cancer survivor. Brava to that and so much more, Gloria.

 

Your absence became a presence as I entered your apartment. Alas, only the camera was my guide. No voice-over narration, your strong mezzo silenced, and just some potted written history of the women's movement, most of which can be found online on Oprah's site or in Wikipedia. Alas, did someone you hold dear suggest this special invitation to promote your foundation? Is that what this is all about?  If so, I forgive you.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Three

One of Stuart's montages, a drawing superimposed on a photograph of Lenoir, a professional artist's model. © copyright Stuart Bigley 2021, by permission of the artist. Watch Stuart draw in a video on his website: www.stuartbigley.com   

   

Covid as Muse

 

 

One of the things that I tell beginning writers is this: If you describe a landscape, or a cityscape, or a seascape, always be sure to put a human figure somewhere in the scene. Why? Because readers are human beings, mostly interested in human beings. 

 

-Kurt Vonnegut

 

 

One summer, between my freshman and sophomore year of college, still so young, I took a job as a swimming instructor at Manitou Fine Arts Camp about four hours north of Toronto. It was cold up there under the Northern Lights and no one wanted to go swimming. In between canoeing, playing tennis and escorting campers to bed, more or less, I modeled in the art studio. That is, I modeled my head and nothing but my head. I had to keep still, no posing necessary, no instructions other than to sit. I sat and sat and day dreamed that one day I'd travel to Paris and become a writer. I was already in Paris in my imagination, I already was a a writer in my imagination, though it took me many years to become a writer. The teenaged artists sketching me, however, were precocious, gifted and disciplined, very serious about their work, which is why they had chosen the camp. Immersion in art with some athletics and romance for balance all summer long. It was bliss for them and for me. Then one day, the art teacher asked me if I'd pose for him off hours in the nude. He was about twenty years my senior, handsome in a rugged way, not my type exactly, but I wasn't sure—being young and naïve—if he was coming on to me (is that what we called harassment when I was coming of age?), or if I wanted to come on to him, or if I even knew what a nude model did, or why artists since antiquity have used nude models to practice their drawing skills and create great works.

 

   "What would that involve?" I asked.

   "Undraping yourself," he said. "Shifting your body into various poses. Do you think you can do that?

     "Like a dancer?"

      "Yes."

 

          I'd had some dance experience and sort of knew what to expect. But was I willing? Was I being groomed?  Was I flattered? No, none of those. I was in the presence of an artist and that was exciting for me at the time, and I felt safe, and mostly curious. I did wonder how I would respond to the sometimes voyeuristic male gaze, what is known as  "le regard" in France. But I had an emancipated European mother and I was emancipated, I thought, or at least I planned to be. So I said I'd think about it. L'artiste didn't press me, the decision was mine, he had other models, other counselors who were willing, he said. 

 

"But you, maybe, there could be something more."  

"Like what?"

"Model as muse."

 

       Alors, he was in love with me, I decided. So I said no definitively. I had a boyfriend, I was still so young. But it didn't take long for me to regret my decision.  To be an artist's muse, ah well, that would have been a memory to take into full adulthood.

 

          Fast forward decades, I've never had a similar offer or request, though I have had a muse or two myself, have written about art a lot in both fiction and nonfiction, and when I am in the company of visual artists, my spirit soars. I make certain I interview them regularly, artists near and far, so that the life affirming conversation about making art can continue. And so I was pleased to be able to meander –masked, distanced, and vaccinated—through the Unison Arts Gallery a few days ago with  Stuart Bigley to peruse his work and ask him about his process. The title of the show is "Covid Muse," though Covid itself has not been the inspiration. Rather, Covid sheltering has provided time for quiet contemplation and experimentation, a "forced retreat," Stuart says. Most artists and writers I know have had a similar experience during the pandemic.

 

     "When I retired as Director of Unison Arts, I decided I wanted to nail drawing," Stuart continued. "I question artists who can't draw. It seems necessary, even as I moved into abstraction, to be able to observe and record accurately."  As usual, there are analogies to writing; our devotion to practice is similar. A life drawing class, which Stuart hosts in the gallery once a week, is the same—practice and preparation. These days, though the models are still mostly female, the class attracts both men and women image makers. It's a reminder that women, too, enjoy contemplating the contours of the human body and transforming it into art.

 

 

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