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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Three

Image of the coronavirus courtesy the CDC. They provide downloadable images. This one went-- viral.


The Surge


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


Governor Cuomo, November 10. 2020



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


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


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

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Two





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

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


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

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



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


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


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


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-One

The Memorial Bench by Craig Shankles, a Huguenot St. resident and professional sculptor. He researched the history of enslavement in New Paltz and was horrified. "I wanted to do the right thing," he told me. The bench was his first memorial.   http://www.stoneandsteeldesigns.com/
Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2020





One in five New Yorkers was a slave…They dug the roads, and their own graves at the Negro Burying Ground.


                 -Jill Lepore, "These Truths; A History of the United States"



I had thought I would write about voting today, the turning up and turning out, the waiting on lines the first day of early voting, the patience, the conversations, the determination despite the persistent dangers of the pandemic, a celebration of hard-earned universal suffrage. But after returning home from a commemoration at the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, I felt sad rather than elated, or sad and elated. Elated by the texts I was receiving about casting a ballot, sad as I walked down Huguenot St. after the event. We had stood near—or  on—a field of bones and ash, no more than a burial pit, covered by a verdant lawn, a tarmac road, houses, cars driving by too fast, bikers, peak weekend. It was not a comfortable sensation standing in proximity to abandoned unmarked graves except for a sign and a concrete memorial bench with a thick, broken metal chain, that was placed there twenty-years ago when a racism study group commissioned the work. The stone memorial bench has stopped me cold many times; it is a powerful image. I thought of my grandfather's grave in Vienna, which all through World War II  had been a mound without a stone, or even a wooden marker. My grandfather, who died before the round-up, was spared the cattle car, the enslavement in the death camp before the killing, and then the killing itself, all family connection obliterated in that not so long ago genocide.


The survivors of once large, extended Jewish families—including my own—are  forever scattered in a diaspora, not unlike the African slaves brought as chattel to the New World. Reparations for the latter are overdue. Families riven, and then reconstituted, or newly assembled, families without inherited well-tended burial plots, or inherited wealth, their ancestors thrown asunder into the ground, bones and viscera commingling.


The burial ground on Huguenot street has never  been excavated. Should it be now? Would it matter? How would descendants of the slaves feel if they had a voice in these commemorative decisions in a town settled by Dutch, English, and French Huguenot slave-owners?  What would they say? How would they want their ancestors who labored and suffered here remembered? Is the commemoration for them, for the descendants of the slave owners, many of whom still live in New Paltz, or for everyone? 


Though New Paltz is a very white town--a story in itself-- thoughtful restorative justice initiatives continue, with more projects underway. The elliptical, mythic, false American narrative is shifting.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later knelt, during the anthem, before his team's 2016 preseason games. Since then "taking a knee" has become an emblem of resistance and protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a controversial gesture of solidarity by police officers. This photo was taken by Roy Ramos, a reporter for WPLG in Coral Gables, FL.



A Police Officer Takes a Knee



Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.


― Homer, The Iliad



I was driving a back road in this season of falling leaves on the way to my dentist, the radio silenced, and no other cars in sight, when I remembered an undercover New York City Transit policeman, the boyfriend of an acquaintance, a caring individual. I wondered whether he'd retired, or was working the frontlines in the pandemic. I imagined him confronting protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and suddenly "taking a knee" in the gesture of solidarity many police officers have made in recent months. He would have been capable of that brave gesture.


Memory spurts are unpredictable and unwieldy. What triggered this? I haven't been in touch with this guy for many years, but the image of the bulge in the small of his back as we walked the streets to a restaurant in our neighborhood one warm, spring Sunday afternoon has stayed with me. I had never noticed it before. As we stopped at a light, I couldn't resist asking if he was packing.  "Yes," he said sotto voce. Neither his girlfriend, nor my husband, had heard the question, and no one except for me seemed interested in his answer once we were seated at a table and I started my interrogation. That simple "yes" wasn't enough for me:


"Why carry when you are off duty?"  I asked.


"Because there are predators everywhere," he said.


 I looked around the restaurant.


"I don't see any," I said.


"That doesn't mean they are not there."


"Have you ever fired your weapon?"




"Have you ever killed anyone?"




"Did you feel remorse?"




"Have you had nightmares after discharging your gun?"





So maybe the trip to the dentist was the trigger. He's an excellent dentist, an artisanal dentist, and I am grateful to have found him. But his banter as he's working on my mouth is often politically far right of my center and all of it feels dissonant and unexpected. Of course, mouth open wide, there is no way I can respond, and I always want to respond. Did he say that the socialists will be looking for trouble as the election looms? Has he ever met any socialists he considers troublemakers? Have I? And so on.


Often, we meet people who confound us, whose background and working life is so different from our own that we struggle to find a place to meet, metaphorically speaking. And, so it was, with the transit cop. And, by the way, he referred to himself as a cop, so I will use that shortcut here even though I know that we were, at times, speaking a different language. "You see predators?" I asked him more than once that day. "I see ordinary people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. I see the bulge under your sweater in the small of your back. I worry a stray bullet may kill me or a bystander."


He was uncomfortable with my questions, and looked as if he was going to cry. He was afflicted, troubled. What he felt—in his heart—and what he had been taught to see and do were not in concert much of the time.


My recollections went into double loops as I was driving. I remembered an Iraq vet I had interviewed. He was from a modest background, and he'd been looking forward to completing his education after his commitment ended. But PTSD had wrecked his plans. He, too, was a sweet-natured guy who had been taught to kill, and he was tormented. The nightmares wouldn't stop.


The police officers in our towns and cities who have been issued military-grade weaponry and riot gear train to target "the enemy." They are no longer protectors, they are enforcers, soldiers. Police reform must start there, with the men and women in police departments across the country who have aspirations, religious principles, families, neighbors, pot-luck dinners, kids who go to school during the pandemic, elders who are isolated. They live among us. They are us. When they dare to take a knee at a protest, they become part of the community again, they become whole.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Nine

The first issue of the Wonder Woman series released on January 1, 1942. 




Wonder Woman left Paradise Island to fight fascism with feminism.


― Jill Lepore, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman"




I have followed Jill Lepore's career since she began writing for The New Yorker in 2005. I read her book, New York Burning, about a 1741 slave uprising in New York as I researched enslavement in New York City for a novella I was writing. I am now reading These Truths: A History of the United States published in 2018, written before Trump's regime was in place, but before the pandemic. Yesterday, I listened to Professor Lepore talk about the pandemic—and much else— in a City Arts Lecture podcast. It was delightful and informative. Did you know, dear reader, that she wrote an essay about breast feeding? (I missed that one but will look it up.) A professor of history at Harvard, she is a non-academic academic. She doesn't hold history at arms-length, or pontificate, or instruct; she is not ideological. She follows her curiosity into a subject and never loses her personal voice or point of view, and she is unapologetic about her point of view. "The work of the historian," she says in These Truths, "is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth." Engage her in informed conversation, but please don't interrupt her, slow her down, or try to assassinate her. She will not be silenced.


I minored in American History when I was in college, and except for Hannah Arendt, who was a political scientist, not a historian, rarely encountered a female academic of note—not in the classroom and not in books. Sadly, there are still more men than women on my history bookshelf though there are plenty of women biographers. And then there is Jill Lepore. Her preeminence is fitting as we are about to elect the first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris –say her name. The thrill of this historic occasion is amplified by the Senator's ancestry. Not only a woman, but a woman of color. I may not agree with all her policy positions—fracking, for example—but I'll swallow that for now as we celebrate this accomplished woman's ascendance.


Any beginning in a particular historical narrative, says Lepore, also has an end. It's important to remember that, not to lose hope. The story of Trump's mis-election and removal from office will be documented and analyzed until it becomes the past, and we move on.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Eight


A Remarkable Person



Valerie Pepe has just published her second book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life Continues," a sequel to her first book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life."  I report this to you with admiration, even a bit of pride, as I've been Valerie's mentor and editor for a long time. She is one of the most disciplined writers and devoted students of writing I have ever had.


Unlike most of us struggling with the restrictions of COVID, Valerie has been navigating obstacles since she was able to walk on her own. Born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), a rare congenital birth defect, she ambulates on crutches. The built world is not made for individuals with disabilities, Valerie always reminds me as she describes falling or tripping or waiting endlessly for paratransit to pick her up in the bitter cold. It's not easy to get around? Dear reader, that is an understatement. There have been infrastructure improvements since the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, but not enough.


I cannot remember the year I first met Valerie, even though that meeting was memorable. She was at the bottom of the staircase in a non-accessible satellite NYU location and she was incensed. She had signed up for my writing creative nonfiction class and, no, she did not want to take a class in another building that was accessible and they—the security—had better accommodate her and get her upstairs to Carol Bergman's class. I was already at the top of the stairs, heard the exchange—I think everyone in the building heard the exchange—and I rushed back down to amplify her request. It was unnecessary. Two security guards and a student were already on the case.


For all these years, until I moved out of the city, Valerie and I exchanged manuscript by email and then met at the Hollywood Diner on 16th Street & Sixth Avenue for our F2F editorial sessions. We always sat in the same booth on the South Side. I would usually order tea, maybe some soup, and she would usually order eggs and fries. She'd had a long workday at the New York City Housing Authority, and she was starved. Not to mention the calories she'd used up getting on and off the bus and walking two blocks from the stop to the diner.


"How many bags are you carrying today, Valerie?" I'd ask before even saying hello. We'd laugh  about our mutual bag affliction, and then I'd unpack myself and my bags, we'd order, and get to work.


There should be a plaque for Valerie outside this diner. The owner and the staff know her well. She started going there on 9/11 when her colleagues walked with her up Sixth Avenue from the NYCHA building and collapsed into the booths. She's been coming back here ever since, writing in her journal for hours, working on her drafts, and meeting me.


When Valerie lost her beloved father in October 2019, and her Aunt Theresa to COVID ,  I wrote to say, "The new book will wait." But instead of waiting, Valerie became even more determined, and more purposeful; she folded these primal losses into the last chapters of the book. She was writing for her father, her aunt, her wonderful mother, her best friend, Eunjoo, her boyfriend, Fernando, and everyone born with AMC, she said. Nothing, not COVID, not death in the family, would stop her.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Seven

The kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa.  Photo courtesy: Craig Foster, The Seachange Project. 


 Embedded in Nature



The oldest, easiest to swallow idea was that the earth was man's personal property, a combination of garden, zoo, bank vault, and energy source, placed at our disposal to be consumed, ornamented, or pulled apart as we wished."


             Lewis Thomas, "The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher" 



As outdoor swimming is over for 2020, and indoor pools are closed for the duration, I have—virtually—immersed myself in a nutrient-rich kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, and the faux floating G gravity of actors on wires –the wires digitally removed—inside a space module catapulting to Mars in the Netflix series, Away. But it is the kelp forest in the award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, that has imprinted on my dreams and daytime reveries.


The Atlantic off Capetown is known as the "Sea of Storms," so fierce is the ocean on the southwestern coast of the African continent, home to one of the biggest kelp forests on the planet. Craig Foster's family had a bungalow on that shore and his diver parents put him in the cold water when he was three-days-old. Amid a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, and a period of burnout and depression, he decided to return to the site of his childhood pleasure and curiosity to immerse in the healing primordial waters. He'd just been filming the indigenous trackers in the Kalahari Desert and was inspired by their gifts and reverent relationship to habitat. He began to explore the kelp forest with a similar reverence, tracking its abundant life underwater, at first without his camera, and then with his camera. Years passed and he was diving every day, without a wetsuit, without scuba gear, to become more amphibious, he explains in the narration. Each dive in the shallow water lasts about two minutes—and  in 2015, on one of these daily forays, he discovered an octopus. His evolving relationship with this intelligent short-lived, "liquid" animal became a collaborative film project—his son and wife, his friends, professionals—culminating in a Netflix release, and The Sea Change Project, an environmental conservation group.


I was so smitten with this film, and all who worked on it, that I messaged Pippa Ehrlich, one of the directors and cinematographers. I woke up to her replies the following morning. The production company has been inundated with requests since the film was launched, and yet she took the time to answer my questions, for which I was grateful.


"Like all ecosystems the kelp forest is facing a myriad of threats including plastic and chemical pollution," Pippa told me in our email exchange when I asked about environmental degradation of the forest. Darwin did not mention pollutants in his reports from the Galapagos in 1835, but he gave us fair, passionate warning:


Amidst the leaves of this [kelp] plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, and otters, seals, and porpoises, would soon perish also


What did Darwin know, what did he see, that some still refuse to know, see and understand? Everything. It seems incredible, almost tragic, that his scientific prediction went unheeded. Yet, it has. I am consoled, at least, that The Sea Change Project  is looking after the kelp forest a continent away from where I live, and that Pippa, Craig, and the rest of the crew of My Octopus Teacher, have used their storytelling gifts to tell an enlightening, inspiring and entertaining personal story. Find more information  on the website: https://seachangeproject.com/



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Six

Image of Kaete Brttin Shaw's "Prayer Flags" @ the Unison Sculpture Garden, New Paltz, NY © copyright Carol Bergman 2020


Prayer Flags



Do something. Start with pleasure. Make a list of all the things that are pleasurable in your life and then make an art form out of one of them. And if you're courageous, make a list of all the things that are difficult in your life and make an art form out of one of them. 


 --Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who "pivoted" to pottery. He was Kaete Brittin Shaw's mentor at Swarthmore, founded by the Quakers.


Never forget that we are artists, every one of us, creating and sustaining a life out of this pandemic wilderness, our connection to others, the new challenges we face every day—joys, sorrows, ups and downs. We digest and enjoy one another's stories, in whatever medium they are rendered: culinary, sculptural, written, or photographic. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Water Dancer this week, a gift from my daughter, I am in another time and place, transported by Hiram, a first person intimate narrator. I've only known Coates as a polemicist and essayist, and now this novel, not quite arrived but of interest nonetheless. Perhaps his next book will be better. And I try to touch in with visual art and visual artists as often as I can, too, even if I can't get to museums and galleries these days. The "arts & culture" app on Google helps, so, too, the occasional interview with an artist when I have been inspired or consoled by the work. This week: the ceramicist and colorist, Kaete Brittin Shaw.

I had first met Kaete at the Unison Arts gallery in New Paltz where I have taught a couple of workshops, but it was an acquaintanceship in passing until this summer when a mutual friend suggested I contact her to ask if I could buddy up for a long distance swim at Lake Minnewaska at the non-life-guarded beach, exclusively for those who have passed a test. Much as I would normally--and in normal times-- resist an exclusive club, mea culpa, I joined this one. I was already on Kaete's mailing list and was paying attention to her work. Then about ten-days ago, exhausted from a hack on my dedicated Virus Without Borders blog book site-- the realization that we'd have to take it down, the sadness of that-- I went up to the Unison Arts sculpture garden for respite.

It was a beautiful, soft, mellow day. The light dappled through the trees onto a simple wooden stage that had recently been built for outdoor, distanced performances. Interesting installations all around, weather ready, solid yet ethereal. I turned to my right and there were Kaete's prayer flags strung between the trees. I hadn't expected to see them there catching the light. My agitated spirit stilled.

I am always interested in an artist's choice of medium, analogous to a writer's choice of genre. Kaete only works with porcelain. Why porcelain? "Because of its whiteness," she explained during a telephone interview. "I'm a colorist and other clays absorb the color too much." For the prayer flags, she's added a layered screen. I'm not sure what this is exactly and look forward to examining them more closely when I'm next in the sculpture garden, or visiting Kaete's studio. That day will be a celebration.

When I asked Kaete about the inspiration for the flags, I assumed she was Buddhist, or had a meditation practice of some sort, but her inspiration was unexpected: she was raised Quaker. I have attended Quaker meetings and know that the long silences, though strange at times, nurture self-reflection and the solitude of artistic endeavor, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, silence is good for artists and writers, whenever and however we can find it. It allows the work to surface. Oddly, we've had too much silence and isolation during the pandemic, the gesture of touching expunged, our voices muffled by masks. Life out of balance.

"I have stalled on a major work," Kaete told me. I could relate as my plan to begin a new book project this summer never happened. I don't think anyone I know anticipated the long haul, the months of struggle, containment, uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues. our families, the world, an election looming. Who will have a job at the end of all this? When will we be able to travel, or walk into the grocery store without masks?

What has raised your spirits during this difficult time? I asked Kaete. "Biking and swimming," she said without hesitation. "Just floating on the lake, looking at the clouds and the cliffs. That helps." I know the feeling. All troubles drift away.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Five

Image of 9/11, a day that disrupted and reconfigured the definition of America: "Devil's Inferno" © copyright Peggy Weis 



What is America to Me?



Amid expanding global conflicts, 79.5 million people are now displaced worldwide… UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)



Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? 


Jenny Erpenbeck,  "Go Went Gone"





I met an acquaintance as I was walking in New Paltz this morning. Masks on, we stopped to talk, always a pleasure in these more isolated times. I'd heard from a mutual friend that she'd had a rough time, lost a good friend to COVID, and taken a fall some weeks ago, her knees and back slow to heal. Now she was out on the trail again, but her partner was feeling frustrated, she said, because they wouldn't be able to travel anytime soon and get away from what will surely be a harsh winter, especially if the virus spikes. I thought about the word frustration after we said goodbye, about the privilege it implies, and I tried to feel sympathetic, but couldn't. This is a family with money, a beautiful house, a pantry brimming with delectable food, access to the best medical care. How dare they complain, I thought to myself, when so many people are suffering here and all over the world? What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?

America. God Bless. When I received an offer of Austrian citizenship recently it suddenly dawned that I could go "home," that "home" was somewhere else, the country of my parents' birth, and childhood, and education. I fantasized the last quadrant of my life—if I am fortunate enough to have a quadrant—with an EU passport, universal health care, daily writing sessions at my favorite Viennese café, and nightly indulgence in the opera. My mother grew up standing room only; I'd treat myself to a loge seat.

I filled out the preliminary Austrian citizenship application. I sent it back and had a return email from the Austrian Consulate in New York. Oddly, I couldn't remember my father's birthday and had to look it up on the internet. I'd blanked. It was not surprising considering the fugue state I was in. What about my daughter? What about my husband? Was I planning to escape to Europe on my own? Never mind that I cannot speak German and have always refused to speak German even during and after I took a (free for me) German class at NYU. English is the lingua franca all over the world, I told myself, extending the fantasy to every detail of an imagined life in Vienna or, with an EU passport, Paris or Madrid.

I called my sensible cousin, Peggy, the creator of the American flag illustrating this blog post. But she was angry with me. I paraphrase and extrapolate: Have you forgotten what they did? Have you forgotten about the right wing surge in the EU right now? Have you forgotten what America meant to our parents? A bit late, nicht? Didn't the Germans offer repatriation to survivors and descendants a long time ago. And so on.

I woke up. And let the application slide.

I don't think I would have even been tempted if I wasn't feeling worried about the election, the crypto-fascist in the White House, and what will happen to all the people I know who have been laid off, and all the undocumented students I've had and what will happen to them, and how the migrant workers in the orchard will survive the winter, and whether or not those near and dear and near and far will survive the winter. COVID crazy. I laugh hysterically when I hear all the suggestions for grounding and breath counting and goodness knows what to manage our grief, our anxiety, our day-to- day coping, the necessity of continuing vigilance to stay safe. Always the words, "stay safe," at the end of every email, every conversation. Bizarre, indeed. But amidst all this bizarreness and uncertainty, I do know this: If artists and writers lose connection to pain as well as joy, we'd might as well quit working.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Four

Photo of Andrew Geher and Tiernan McCarthy-Kenney © copyright Jack Hyland 2020, with permission.



What We Choose to See



I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.

                         Donna Tartt, The Secret History


Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, Grow."


The Talmud



Andrew Geher and friends are cleaning up a dead zone, as deep and dark as a pit, cavernous and hidden, behind the local MacDonald's on Main Street in the small town where I live, New Paltz, NY.   It's an unofficial dumping ground and, possibly, a homeless encampment. In the past that would have been hard to believe in this affluent town, less so now that the pandemic has decimated so many jobs.  Andrew was walking by the site with his friends, a walk he's made often, but this time he saw the mess. This shock of recognition—the realization that our landscapes as well as our bodies can be compromised, trashed, or destroyed—stayed with him.


"I'd had a quiet, introspective few weeks when classes were suspended in the spring," Andrew told me in a phone conversation. A performer specializing in musical theater, going silent could have been especially difficult, but Andrew relished it. Both his dad and his sister had come down with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined in their respective rooms, both were very ill, though not hospitalized. They recovered, but it wasn't an easy time.


Still in his junior year of high school, Andrew didn't have his driver's license yet so he made plans with friends to walk masked and distanced around town, a safe way to get out and hang out.  Teenagers talking and walking. And then, one day, they passed the site and Andrew decided he'd organize a clean-up and posted an invitation on the community Facebook page. In addition to a cohort of personal friends, about a dozen of the local citizenry showed up, young and old, including Andrew's dad who was hauling a couch up a steep embankment when I arrived on a warm day in August.


Life for all of us has changed beyond all our imaginings; we all have been afflicted and challenged in particular ways.  Andrew and his friends will be entering their senior year of high school on Zoom, so the initial clean-up and a spin-off project is a give-back to the community, a broader, ambitious activism, and a way to stay sane and connected during the still difficult months ahead.  


On his new website,  donthurthearth.com,  Andrew says that he hopes to inspire his generation to be part of the solution, not the problem.  He deserves encouragement, support and applause.

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