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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Two

 
A gathering of bees for sustenance, self-protection and survival. Their behavior is instinctual, humans' is not, nor is it as rational as we'd like to believe. We're out of our long winter hibernation, so let us learn from the bees and other creatures we have tamed. We are responsible for them and one another.

 

Interlude; Buds & Bees

    

 

In a dark time, the eye begins to see…

 

-Theodore Roethke

 

 

When the bees are swarming around the hives, we know that they have survived the winter and that spring is here, or nearly here, and that the queen bee has been protected by the worker bees, huddling together in the man-made hives to stay warm, using the nourishment of the well-preserved and preservative honey for fuel, though not much is needed when there are no blossoms to pollinate. My daughter was not certain if they were visiting bees, awake from wintering, searching out the remnant honey, or indigenous bees that they had nurtured last season. Bees can travel a ways, which can be a problem when one neighbor lays down pesticide and the other doesn't. But the sight of those bees, the soft thrum of their ricocheting flight, made us stop our walk through the homestead and marvel at the beauty of returning life and the miracle of survival itself. We thought of friends and family, near acquaintances and far, even colleagues, who did not make it through the winter. We thought of their loved ones.

 

It was a too-warm day. We let the dogs lead us onto a well-worn wooded path. Detritus of storms everywhere—a harsh winter exacerbating our lockdowns, ice not fully receded. Yet the fruit trees are budding and the frogs have returned to the pond after their winter hibernation—soon there will be an orgy, my daughter explained. Like the bees, they dig deep into the blanket of the earth and stay very still until the earth turns again. We reveled in the chorus of their joyful croaking, eager to disturb their song by piercing the cold pond water with our vaccinated bodies.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-One

 

Passing Judgment

 

 

 

The fact that behavior is commonplace does not mean it should be mistaken for behavior that is normal.

 

-Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, March 15, 2021

"How Parties Die"

 

 

I've been thinking about Governor Cuomo all morning and began to write this post as I was swimming laps. I've been loading up on well reported descriptions of a toxic workplace environment, the accusations of the Governor's female employees, the nursing home fiasco, and even worse, the cover-up. If true, none of this is good news. We relied on this elected official's leadership during the pandemic and were in thrall to every pronouncement at his weekly news conferences. We took his advice and we trusted him. Many women friends of mine joked that they were standing in line to date the Governor; he was hot, he was competent, he gave us clear instructions. The revelations of recent weeks don't change any of that except for one thing: many of his staff were suffering, and not from Covid. And though none of the allegations have been proven, and must be proven before we pass our final judgment, it is difficult to keep that judgment in abeyance when we feel shocked and disappointed. Nonetheless, we must. The abrogation of the rule of law these last four years has damaged our democracy. I find the prospect of trial by media rather than trial by jury as troubling as anything the Governor did or might have done. Have we succumbed once again to America's "persecuting spirit," as described by Nathaniel Hawthorne and amplified by McCarthyism? 

 

Here are my more specific thoughts in no particular order:

 

1.    Has the Governor been living in such a protected bubble that he's by-passed the protocols of sexual harassment law? They are very specific, stipulated by New York State law. At NYU I must review this law with a video course and answer questions before re-entering the classroom every term. Did the Governor, in fact, take the course?

 

2.    Would it be possible to view the Governor's alleged sexual advances as pathetic rather than malevolent? Or desperate rather than malevolent? The attempts to connect sound as inappropriate and immature as a teenager's. Except for the "groping" allegation, they are not violent.

 

3.    Andrew Cuomo was known as the "enforcer" for his father, Mario, when Mario was Governor. This backstory is well known and proven. Tough guy. Strongman. If it's true that he still bullies, shouts, and threatens to obliterate, why hasn't  there been a protest by the women and the men who have worked for him all these years?  Has he only hired men and women who are easily intimidated? Are his staff so eager and ambitious that they'll swallow all aggressive and abusive behavior?

 

4.    Last but not least, as a mom of a strong daughter, who forced her to take karate until she got her black belt, I do have some questions about the women who have come forward. I believe them totally, but I also am concerned that accomplished ambitious women still do not speak up, or know what to say in situ—providing there is no threat of violence. Did the women in this story have any responsibility, any agency at all, or were they only victims? I hope not.

 

 I am reminded of the complex and troubling discussion about Pablo Picasso's misogyny and Woody Allen's pedophilia. Must we disregard the art, destroy our pleasure in it—if we can still feel pleasure in it--or does the work stand alone, apart from the biography? Will Governor Cuomo be remembered for his management of the pandemic in New York State,  the allegations against him, or for the results of the investigations once they are delivered?

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty

With thanks to Lindsay DuBois Kraus and Alan Kraus for this beautiful birthday bouquet.

 

False Ending

 

 

People have forgotten this truth," the fox said. "But you mustn't forget it. You become responsible forever for what you've tamed. You're responsible for your rose."

 

           ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince"

 

 

I was talking to my college friend, Dr. Stephen Goodman, a frontline worker all these past months, and he told me that he was sorry I'd ended Virus Without Borders. Had I ended it? He wasn't sure. Nor was I, as it turned out. I'd had a week of endless work-related distractions, most of them unpleasant, and the grounding of writing a VWB post at  the end of the week was missing. I had tried writing a "regular" post about returning to fiction, rereading a couple of novels to prepare for a new writing escapade, but nothing worked. I was stuck, not blocked, but stuck. Fully vaccinated, I'd assumed there was nothing else I had to say about the pandemic and that it was time to move on. But we are not finished with this plague, far from, and there is a  lot more to say about it, a lot more to document. Just look at the numbers, consider the variants, think about the scramble for vaccines, the insanity of governors re-opening their states completely, the  re-opening of public schools. I will be back in the classroom in September. Will it be safe? Will I be teaching with a mask on, or off? Will the union committee I am on insist on proper ventilation before we re-enter the classroom? And so on.

 

It's as though we've escaped from a war zone but are still inside the war zone, hampered, trampled, halfway home but still at risk. Sitting outdoors at a café with a couple of local friends, celebrating my birthday with a decaf  latte, skim milk, and a vegan chocolate chip cookie, we raised our arms in a hallelujah, and beyond one singular birthday, celebrated all our birthdays, and our survival. Then we tried to figure out what we could and could not do now that we are fully vaccinated. Our children have not been vaccinated and are still super cautious, hyper-vigilant at times, as they must be. And though we see an ending, beyond the false ending we are now living, it will not be definitive like a light switch going off. Closure maybe, a return to activity, and an assessment of the economic, political and personal challenges that lie ahead, but not a definitive ending and a return to what some call "normalcy." No, life will be different, that is a given. And though the plot seems to be heading to a conclusion, dear reader, there's still more to the story.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Nine

"Inner Freedom" © copyright by Malak Mattar 2021. Malak is a Palestinian artist from Gaza who is now studying in Istanbul. As my March birthday is also the one year anniversary of sheltering-in-place, I decided to treat myself to one of Malak's paintings. 

 

Inner Freedom

 

 

I've always wanted to write a poem that ends/at the ocean. How the poem gets there doesn't much matter, just so at last/it arrives.

 

-Jim Moore, from "Poem That Ends at the Ocean"

 

 

Since I became a writer, I have always wanted to write one book a year. These past few years I have almost fulfilled this ambition, but I never thought I would get to Chapter 59, much less 35 or 40 or 50 in Virus Without Borders. I never imagined that a dedicated blog by that domain name—one  I own—would  be hacked by bad actors, and that I'd have to shift it to my more secure Authors Guild site, or that I'd only be writing about the pandemic and putting other projects aside for an entire year. Indeed, the blog/ book began to feel like the pandemic itself: unending.

 

It began as a project to maintain a writer's discipline, to keep track of time passing or fading away, to process the constant challenges we have all experienced, to acknowledge the struggle, mourn the dead, and to document my personal experience of the pandemic. My intention was to write one chapter every week or ten days, and when the pandemic was over, to donate the book blog—or blog book, I never could decide—to an archive somewhere for future historians to use. I am sure many other writers and artists will do the same. But the pandemic is far from over and won't be for a long while. What else do I have to say about it? We all know the deal: vaccinate as fast as we can, continue vigilance and safety protocols, and return to life and justice initiatives with other survivors—friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, kindred spirits. We are survivors. Will it be difficult to accept that very fact? 

 

I  am gratified that this blog/book has sustained me and others. Some readers have written to me privately with their own comments and stories, some have commented on the website's comments function. I hope that I'll continue to see you on the same Authors Guild site in the weeks and months ahead, that this post today is a coda for Virus Without Borders, but not the end of connection between this writer and her readers. As the restrictions of the pandemic recede, we can move on together and continue a conversation. I'll be returning to ruminations, interviews, reviews and stories about writing, the writing life, and much else, some still pandemic related, some not. All the posts, including Virus Without Borders, are archived, dating back to 2008. Dip in. Enjoy. Comment. Share your stories.

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Eight

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

 

In a Slow Moving Year

  

 

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

 

-Marshall McLuhan

  

 

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

 

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

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Seven

Don't hesitate and lose your place. You are more at risk not getting the vaccine.

       

10,000 Calls

 

 

 

I have been calling to get an appointment anywhere, every morning, every afternoon, and often I've been online at night.

     -

Fran Goldman, 90, a Seattle resident, as reported by the AP

 

 

Sound familiar? From what I can tell, Fran's story is everywoman's and everyman's story this week. She is internet savvy and lucked out: she got an appointment, but had to walk back and forth on her own in Seattle's unprecedented snowstorm. A personal friend of mine had ambulatory surgery in New York a few weeks ago, was released, and had to forge a snowstorm to get home on a bus, her neighbor/escort hanging on to her for dear life. In the midst of the pandemic, there were no provisions in the hospital, or the city, to make sure she got home safely. Nor were there beds available for her to stay the night. My husband and I got our second shots, but many "eligible" people I know have not been able to get their shots, or have traveled far to get their shots. And what about people who can't do that? Or can't navigate the internet?

 

Remember President Bush's "thousand points of light," i.e. volunteerism. Well, there are volunteers now helping folks get appointments. Nice, but not an answer. What we need is an emergency preparedness infrastructure. What we need is federally and state employed logisticians. But this is the USA. Good luck. Even the United Nations, crippled as it is by member states' hubris and intransigence, even they do better in countries far far away that sometimes do not even have running water. Vaccination programs succeed.

 

Do you think the United States will be prepared for the next pandemic or climate change catastrophic event? Or are we, individualistic Americans, Texans every one, content with handing over our fates—physical, mental, spiritual—to our paralyzed governments and private grid owners? And why isn't the army or National Guard administering vaccine so that citizens and health care providers do not have to scramble for supplies? And why did Walgreen's and CVS, private for-profit companies, get the gig, their websites crashing every day?

 

These  are rhetorical questions. Next up, I will channel the artist Jenny Holzer and write in big print on a brick wall: ARE YOU A SOCIALIST?  Heaven forfend. A centralized, organized system that works, won't it implode our liberties? Is this even a question from anyone with half an education?

 

Forgive my sarcasm this morning, dear reader, but I had a My Chart conversation with my doctor yesterday in which her over-burdened-self  revealed that when the clinic announced they had a new supply of vaccines, they got 10,000 calls. I had been trying to reach the nurse in the practice for two days as I had an adverse reaction to the second Moderna shot, wanted to report it, and ask a question or two. No such luck. My doctor felt so bad, she apologized. What a ridiculous situation. Because of the collapse—or  nonexistence—of  infrastructure, she could not attend to her patients. In the end, I called a doctor friend in San Francisco. He held my hand long distance and told me to report the adverse reaction to the CDC, which I have done, thus contributing to continuing data collection. They have a user-friendly website for anyone interested:

 

https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/ensuringsafety/monitoring/vaers/index.html

 

And PS nothing, absolutely nothing, would have stopped me from getting a shot, even knowing in advance that I'd have a reaction. Please get yours as soon as you are eligible and it is available. Please don't knowingly jump the queue in the chaotic scramble everyone is experiencing. And if you are questioning the wisdom of getting the shot at all, please read this:

 

https://politicsay.com/vaccine-alarmism-the-new-york-times/

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Six

Jake and Neyteri in "Avatar," 2009

   Beyond  Pronouns

 

Jake Sully: I see you.

Neytiri: I see you.

 

-from  "Avatar," screenplay by James Cameron based on "Burning Chrome," a short story by William Gibson

 

For the first time since NYU's founding in 1831, students can add their personally selected pronouns, as well as the pronunciation of their names, to the faculty roster. This decision did not surprise; it's been evolving for a long time. To ignore its opportunities and imperatives would be #cisprivilege.  And what is cis? And what is #cisprivilege? I had vaguely, imperfectly understood, then I understood. I have always read Masha Gessen in The New Yorker and find her an outstanding clear-thinking source for all things Russian and trans. Forgive me, dear reader, if I slip now and again. I try to keep up. These changes in our culture and in our language are happening fast.

 

Like so much else, I suspect that NYU's decision was hastened by this past COVID year of invisibility, or partial visibility. We are blended in and out of the classroom, or framed by wee boxes on virtual platforms: I see you, I see myself in the camera's eye. Where are you? Where am I?  The images of ourselves and others are often elusive, so why not ground them, explore them, and redefine them with precise language as we await the day we will become three-dimensional to one another again. At which point, what will the world look like and sound like? How will we have changed? 

 

Just out of college, the cis daughter of a friend ran a support group for trans teens in a Mt. Sinai clinic in Spanish Harlem. She wasn't qualified,  she wasn't trans, but she was an empathetic facilitator. Working with the guidance of a social worker, she never flinched, never questioned the rights and desires of her struggling and suffering younger charges to find peace and acceptance, to get jobs, to protect themselves from abuse and worse. When she asked me to teach a writing workshop, I felt both curious and repulsed. Who were these young people? How did they get this way? What went wrong? Can they be fixed? As an educator, a parent, an espoused progressive, I knew better, but these inane and ignorant thoughts crossed my mind—shame on me. Years later, I have fewer questions, and more understanding, but as a writer and editor I still have a problem with plural pronouns becoming singular (he/she/him/her/his shifting to their/them) even though the psychodynamic imperative is now obvious to me.

 

Shifts in language follow changes in society. We now capitalize the word Black, for example, with reference to a Black person. Just recently, newspapers and magazines of record had discussions about this change as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter Movement; the decision was made decisively and quickly.

 

During a Zoom session last week, two students corrected my mispronunciation of their names. I didn't mind because it took courage to challenge a professor on the first day of class, and building courage to tell a story is key to my pedagogy. I was also pleased that they felt safe enough and self-confident enough to voice their names out loud for all of us to hear, learn, and appreciate. 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Five

"Sleeping in Nature" from "When the World Sleeps" series © copyright Malak Mattar 2021 

https://www.etsy.com/shop/MalakArtStore
 

With thanks to Malak for permission to use this image. Originally from Gaza, Malak is currently finishing her studies in Istanbul. I was thrilled to get in touch with her again via Facebook Messenger and will chat with her soon on Whats App.  

 

 

 The World Out There

 

 

I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened the window/And in-flew-enza

 

-a 1918 children's rhyme

 

There's a big wide world out there, in case we've forgotten, I said to my husband the other day. He was gazing longingly through the slats of the blinds into the setting sun after we returned from a curbside pick-up at our local grocery store. It was too cold to stay out, even to walk. Our new apartment is bright, facing west and south, lots of windows. But the landscape is still out there, and we're here, hunkered down again as the numbers started rising in our county and the variants appeared in afflicted COVID-19 patients. The vaccine roll out is slow everywhere. We lucked out and got appointments—our second shot is next week—but we felt awful when we learned our local friends were not as fortunate. I had hoped to celebrate my March birthday with them in situ at Main Course, our favorite local restaurant, where exactly one year ago, almost to the day, we had our last indoor social gathering. So much for that idea. Even after we are fully vaccinated, the scientists tell us, we must remain cautious—distancing, masking, indoor gatherings still discouraged. No hugs for a while either. Oh, I cannot wait to relinquish the by now perfected virtual hug. It will take some adjustment I am sure. Will we be fearful, I wonder? Can we imagine the whole world out there hugging and hugging and hugging?

 

So, what's the upshot this week as I write? We are still distanced/isolated physically, but not bereft I'd have to say, after doing an informal unscientific survey, fortunate to have one another most of all, and to be deepening our relationships near and far with phone calls and zooms. Personally, I'm grateful that we moved closer to our daughter a couple of years before the pandemic and that we've had walks and talks on a regular basis. Had we not, oh, well I don't want to think about that; I commiserate with all the separated families. What must it have been like in 1918 without technology? How hard that must have been. So much heartbreak in the midst of coping and surviving, even with modern technology.

 

As for teaching, I have been impressed by the efforts all my students have made to stay connected with me and one another, mostly through their writing, but also on social media, email and phone. My NYU classes have been full with waiting lists, students from Canada and Portland, even Colombia this term. Intimate distance learning, if that is not an oxymoron, in proximity on the screen, backgrounds staged like a mirage: paintings, interesting book cases, plants, ceilings occasionally. The shop steward of the NYU union told me this week that meetings will continue on Zoom because people show up. How interesting that is: People show up.

 

I think we have to commend ourselves for showing up during the pandemic. We get online, we participate, we listen to lectures, go to museums, volunteer, continue working, continue loving, love even more. Most recently, I've been enjoying "Cocktails With the Curator" at The Frick, one painting every Friday, the perfect day for me as I always treated myself to a Friday museum foray when I lived in the city. Now I get to listen to an erudite curator talk, up close and personal. I hope digital cultural offerings continue after the pandemic is over and, if so, that I continue to take advantage of them. They are not a substitute for being in front of a work of art, or at a live concert, but they do amplify curiosity and knowledge.

 

The world out there, globalization beyond economic globalization, shared culture, shared concern, the world inside our homes, the worlds within us, history witnessed and written as we live and breathe.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Four

Cicely Tyson: In Memoriam

 

 

I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word… And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say."

 

          From "Just As I Am" –Cicely Tyson's Memoir

 

The one-day memoir intensive at Gotham Writers' Workshop began early. I brought my breakfast, lunch and late day snack. I was dressed informally. Teaching is an aerobic activity for me and I sweat. It was spring, or maybe summer, sometime in the 1980's.  Please don't ask me the exact date; I'm not good with dates. Time passing, time immovable, a sense of time utterly distorted in the midst of this pandemic, impatience grating as the end approaches and then recedes with news of variants.

 

And then this morning, I read of Cicely Tyson's death, aged 96—when did she get that old? I was not surprised she had lived so long. I was not surprised she had finally published her memoir. Indeed, I was pleased she had finally conquered her resistance and found the right collaborator, Michelle Buford, a founding editor of The Oprah Magazine.

 

I had checked in with the admin at Gotham and was told that the room had been prepared for me—all of the chair desks in a circle. I remember that the room was bright, the light filtering through dirty schoolroom windows facing north. Gotham had not rented this space before so it was new to me. I left my belongings on a chair and went into the hallway to search for the bathroom. When I returned a woman was standing by the window gazing at the cityscape. I said hello, but she did not reply. Minutes later, as more students entered and settled, the woman remained standing by the window. I introduced myself, asked the students to introduce themselves, the usual routine, and I said to the standing woman, "Would you please take a seat." She turned to face me. A Black woman wearing over-sized sun glasses, a wig, a coat covering a slim, slight body on what would surely be a warm day. Camouflage.

 

"You will have to take a seat if you wish to participate," I said firmly.

 

So she finally took a seat but  still refused to introduce herself.

 

"I'll just listen," she said.

 

So I let her listen, but at the break, I went back to admin and asked about the woman.

 

"It's Cicely Tyson."

 

"I know who she is. She is disrupting the flow of the class. I have to insist that she participate."

 

"She's a celebrity."

 

"Today she is my student and that's all she is. I've interviewed a lot of celebrities. I get the attitude, I get the fear of exposure. But not in my class."

 

No, not possible. I had to ignore her reluctance—or  was it resistance—and let her stay, I couldn't ask her to leave, I was told.

 

Lots of prompts and read-backs. She didn't open a notebook, take out any loose paper, or participate in the discussions. I tried to pretend she wasn't there. I hoped she'd just leave, but when I returned from a break she was still there, arms crossed, coat on, behind her dark glasses. Then it was lunchtime. She walked out, took all her belongings. Good, I thought, she's gone.

 

I left the building to get some air, went to the park, and ate my sandwich. I got back to the room early having told the students I'd be available to chat informally. And there she was again staring out of the dirty window. This time I walked up to her and stood next to her, shoulder to shoulder. "What's going on?" I asked.

 

"My daughter gave me this class as a present. She wants me to write my memoir. I don't want to write my memoir."

 

"Okay, so look, if you are going to stay, you will have to participate. It makes the students uncomfortable, it's not right that you set yourself apart, and it's hard for me. Everyone knows who you are so you might as well take off those glasses. But when you are here, you are an aspiring writer and my student. You don't have to read anything aloud, but try to write to the prompt and say one or two things to the other students. I don't care if you leave, but if you stay, those are my rules."

 

I felt like a mom chastising a petulant daughter. I set the boundaries and she relaxed. I wished I had done it earlier.

 

Never too late. For the rest of the workshop, she wrote intensely and  spoke aloud ever so tentatively. That was enough for me. And I hope it was enough for her, too, that she had started her memoir, or that the idea and purpose of a memoir had been seeded in her.

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Three

The restored north wall of the Abraham Hasbrouck House on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. Note the two cellar windows venting the below-ground kitchen where the slaves worked and slept. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021.

 

Restoration

 

 

This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: "At the time, no one knew what was coming." 

 

        -Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

 

On Inauguration Day 2021 we learned that Seamus Heaney is one of President Biden's favorite poets and that he recited poetry in front of a mirror to tame his stammer. Every inauguration within my memory has featured a poet's perspective, a poet's sensibility, song and dance. In a time deadened by a pandemic, recovering ever so slowly from four years of toxic waste in Washington, pomp, ceremony, ritual and poetry was solace for our aching souls. But now it's over and the restoration of our lives continues in tandem with the restoration of our nation state's democratic first principles. To whit it is now incumbent upon us to look backward into the fault lines of our history—slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy and the genocide of the indigenous tribes—to  understand how we almost lost our democracy.

 

Many historians were not surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. We need only return to the candidacy of Sarah Palin, not very long ago, as described in President Obama's  book, to understand what happened: "Hers was  a biography tailor made for working class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elite—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life," he writes in "A Promised Land," the first volume of his presidential autobiography. It is a fascinating read, a reminder that President Obama thought of himself as a writer long before he went into politics. It's also a plea for continuing historical study, re-interpretation of that history, vigilance in the present, and activism.

 

***

 

At a webinar at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY this week, I heard the now standard disclaimer—which also appears on their website—about living on Munsee Lenape land: Historic Huguenot Street acknowledges that it is located on lands of indigenous peoples. These lands have been home to Esopus Munsee people for thousands of years, and are still culturally significant to Native Nations today. This disclaimer was amplified with a reference by Kara Augustine, the Director of Public Programming, to the enslaved laborers in the Huguenot settlement, four of whom lived in the 1760 Abraham Hasbrouck House, which is undergoing extensive restoration, a now twenty-year project paid for by the extant Hasbrouck family. Like other Huguenot descendants, they have a Family Association. Though their historical roots in France are modest, and they were persecuted and massacred as Protestants in a Catholic country, by 1760 the settlers were already wealthy and prominent. Their property ledgers included slaves. Centuries later they have what seems to be a fabricated coat of arms, an emblem of status we associate more with the Old World than the New.  

 

"Museums are fundamentally conservative," Kate Eagen Johnson, a history consultant, told us at the webinar. She specializes in material artifacts, all of which tell a story. She investigates, reconstructs, sometimes commissions replicas. All such restoration is a very long process requiring patience, she says. "The past is past and they [the museums that hire her] want it to stay that way." She went on to explain that the slaves, who lived in the cellar kitchens, were referred to as "the kitchen family," a historic euphemism, best abandoned in this era of racial justice reckoning.

 

Neil Larson, an architectural historian well known in Ulster County for the documentation and restoration of stone houses, revealed that the doors leading from the main house to the kitchen cellars were often kept locked. "Much that is said about how humanely white families treated their slaves, there still was a need for security…Kitchens were a space of isolation." Slave uprisings and slave runaways were feared by the enslavers for good reason; there were many precedents—in  Haiti, in Jamaica, in New York City in 1741. Indeed, enslavers trembled in the shadow of their self-inflicted turpitude.

 

We must ask: Is the Abraham Hasbrouck house being restored, renovated, stripped down to its essence, or re-examined and re-interpreted? Perhaps all of the above. How shall we consider the lives of those who lived and died there when it is reopened to the public? What words will the tour guides use to explain the lives of the Hasbrouck household in 1760? How will the signage change to reflect the re-interpretation?

 

Descendants of the enslaved population in New Paltz are hard to find and therefore cannot participate in this discussion. Before emancipation they were thrown into an unmarked pit, now known as the "African American Burial Ground," on the edge of town.  (See my blog post, "Chattel," of October 26, 2020).  After emancipation, a small settlement, including a church, formed south of New Paltz, some residents buried in the segregated cemetery nearby. At least the graves there were marked. But most former slaves fled New Paltz in search of work and more welcoming communities. Who could blame them?

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