Chloe checks me out every morning to see if I have carrots or cookies, she sniffs my hands, my pockets, she nuzzles my face if Iet her, she gives me a kiss as Maria has trained her to do. I have no carrots or cookies, today, she gives me a baleful stare. Red, of course, the no-nonsense animal, is already poised to work. Dogs are more useful than horses, I think.
I spent most of my in big cities – I've lived and work in New York City (three times), Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas and Washington, D.C. In each of these cities I learned gradually and over time to be careful about giving money to people on the street, even if they look poor, are huddling with sad-eyed dogs, or freezing on a cold winter night.
I don't care to be heartless, and I take to heart the sacred injunction to give hope to the poor. But it is never so simple. Too often, the money bought drugs or alcohol, or went to exploiting a dog or kind heart. As a reporter, I saw the other side of panhandling, it was often ugly and deceptive and those coins often went to buy some bad things.
It is just not possible to know on the street who is in genuine need of help or what they might do with it, so I gave money instea, at the recommendation of social workers everywhere, to places and organizations that I knew would meet the real needs of poor people and knew how to help with things like rent and medical care. But it is never simple to walk away from people in pain, or people in need, especially when our governments and so many people who call themselves people of faith have turned against them.
I smile or sometimes look a way, I try and say "no thank you." It never feels good, one way or the other.
Some places test this understandable but somewhat weary notion about giving money to people on the street, Brattleboro, Vt. is one of them. The town is filled with students, kids, street people and nice people with no money. Some of these kids – travelers and runaways – are hungry and alone. It's hard to walk away from them, although I most often do. Today, there was a woman sitting on the street and she looked just down on her luck.
Her eyes were warm and sad.
Something about her face touched me, I didn't look away or nod politely. "Are you having a bad today?," I asked. yes, she said, it was her birthday and she had just had a run of very bad luck. Life was just beating on her, she said. Any little thing.
There was no guile in her face, no manipulation, she just looked sad. I gave her some money on impulse – some of my impulses are good and true. And asked if I could take her picture.
She thanked me, said yes to the picture. Giving is always a selfish act, we do it for us as much as for them. It's hard because it seems to me sometimes that no one wants to take responsibility for the poor or troubled any longer, not even the good people of faith. I am not a Christian, but I am a follower of Jesus Christ, it seems so many of the people invoking his name have little idea what he is about. If he were alive today, I have little doubt he would be little bands of righteous people to storm the churches and temples where the poor are often evoked, but rarely helped.
He would give the high priests and rabbis a very hard time.
I told her I like her sign "any act of kindness" had a ring to it, and I hope her days turn brighter. Just around the corner, a man in a flannel shirt and wool cap came up to me, saw my camera and clothes, and asked if I could help him. "No, thanks," I mumbled, nodding and turning away.
There are lots of reasons to take a drive to Brattleboro, Vt. on an oddly warm and beautiful November day. Brattleboro is a charismatic throwback to another time, people know one another, speak to one another, seem to always be willing to talk to a stranger and brighten one another's day. Maria and I were restless today, we are both trying to figure out the holidays and make some new memories. I think it is special because so many people there practice little acts of love.
Plus there are great thrift stores for my wife to browse, and some restaurants where we love to eat. We are thinking of spending Christmas there.
So we got up today and decide to take a drive there. Maria wanted to buy me a scarf for Christmas, and I need some new underwear and suspenders – I buy all of my clothes at Sam's cavernous clothing store on the main drag. Black Friday was in full force in Brattleboro, the small town was packed with people shopping and walking around.
Maria found the scarf for me – it is pretty stylish, and i found a woven bracelet for her. I got my suspenders and a neat sweater, if it ever gets cold (it will.) As we were walking down the street, arm-in-arm, laughing, a man in a blue wool cap carrying a ladder crossed in front of us at the intersection.
"Hey, you two," he said, "you two look like a great couple, you look really happy together and I wanted to wish you a great day here." I don't really know how we look, but people will often smile at us and tell us we look happy together. I am happy to hear that, it is true. And I am even happier that it gives other people pleasure.
I thanked the man and said well, now I have to take your picture, and he nodded and said sure. So here it is. Saint Therese of Lisieux practiced what she called "the little way of love." She inspired us to not miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship.
In our world, there are big acts of hatred and conflict and violence. St. Theresa believed little acts of love are very powerful, and would ultimately win out over big acts of hatred. I think that is true.
A few minutes earlier, a cashier at Sam's told me a touching story about how she left her Thanksgiving Dinner to drive to a mall on a crowded and frantic day to get a special kind of bicycle for her grandson. He had some kind of illness, I gathered, he had wanted one for a long time. She had learned online that there was only one left, and she drove more than an hour to get there to buy it, fighting the crowds in the parking lot and the store.
She got there in time. Because it was on sale,reduced by 30 per cent, she could barely afford it. The next morning, when the sale was over, she wouldn't be able to.
She was beaming proudly as she told me the story. "Will you be able to wait until Christmas to give it to him?," I asked. "Of course," she said. She knows exactly where it will be under the tree. I wonder if the boy will grasp the love and devotion his grandmother felt for him, it is the purest kind of love, I think.
In Brattleboro, they still practice the little ways of love, I could see it in the gentle face of the cashier and of this workman, who could just as easily have carried his ladder across the street and paid no attention to the couple walking hand-in-hand in front of him. He was, after all, busy carrying a big and heavy ladder.
And he noticed us.
Good for him, he is, I think, an angel inviting us to practice the little ways of love.
Last night, I was at a Thanksgiving dinner and someone said they had been reading my blog and were surprised at my openness about sharing parts of my life. I was asked if I ever regretted it. I am often asked that question and have been thinking about what openness is, why it is so threatening to so many people, what it really means, and why it has become important to me.
As is perhaps obvious, I do not regret it. Ever. Not even when strangers many thousands of miles send me rude messages or try to tell me what to do.
I said I was perhaps not as open as people think – I share some parts of my life, not others. I believe it takes a great deal of courage and strength to share my dreams and hopes and failures with anyone else. I have written several memoirs in book form, and no one ever asked me why I was being open.
If people read my blog as a literary memoir, they would expect me to be open and authentic about my life, and perhaps even praise me for it. That is just what they are paying for when they buy memoirs, what critics expect. The fact that I am open about my life on a blog is what puzzles some people, and disturbs some others.
It makes a lot of people uncomfortable when people decide to be honest about themselves.
In the changing landscape of the writer's life – everything is different now than it was a few years ago – I have come to see my blog as a living memoir, as my great work, for better or worse. What possible value would it be to people if I were not open, and what real reason would people have to read it, if they did not see their lives – the good and the bad – reflected in it? Truly, my failures are more interesting than my successes, we can all learn from them.
I think if the blog were published between the pages of a book (this can no longer happen in our world) no one would even ask about openness or think it strange. Openness is the currency of good writing.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Raine Maria Rilke wrote that "only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn't exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.”
“Make your ego porous," Rilke wrote. "Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.” The question I would pose to other writers and artists is this: why aren't you open? Why are you hiding yourself and your life and your work from the people you ask to pay for your life and support it? To me, the opposite of openness is a kind of fraud, an unconscious deception, I think it the right of people to decide for themselves, but I don't see all that much noble in hiding. If you expect people to pay to read about your life, you owe them a fulll accounting of it, as best you can provide.
In many parts of my life, I see that openness is threatening to people. The people who run the carriage trade in New York are almost continuously uncomfortable with me – I have always made them uneasy – because they keep so much of what they do a secret, they do not believe in being transparent. Neither do the people in animal rights groups, or the mayor's office, or in the City Council. If anyone was truly open, they would be exposing their tender underbellies to wolves. No corporation in American is truly open, no stockholder would tolerate it.
The established order – political, business, cultural, media – is not an open culture, only crazy writers, artists and lunatics would ever do it. I was at a dinner party last week – people were talking football and local politics – and some asked me not to share it on my blog. I was astonished at the idea that I would take a private dinner conversation – not the most exhilarating one – and put it on my blog without permission or discussion. For one thing, I would never do that, for another, why would I want to?
I said I was surprised by the question, and my host said, almost wrinkling her nose, "well, you are so open about your life."
I can't speak for anyone else, but there is great value to me in openness. For one thing, it is liberating. I have no secrets. My many shortcomings are as obvious as my few gifts, I have nothing to hide, there is (almost) nothing you can find out about me that I haven't told you. That is a very good thing to feel.
For another, and as Rilki wrote, openness has made my ego porous. All the things I hid for much of my life – my anxiety, addictions, obsessions, depressions, horrific mistakes and compulsions – are not important. I have acknowledged them, written about them, dealt with them and still do. Openness, patience, solitude and receptivity is everything. These are the foundation elements of creativity.
Being open has made me more creative. You cannot truly ever be creative, I believe if you do not know yourself and take responsibility for yourself. What is art, after all, but the sharing of experience? And no one on this world has only had perfect and joyous experience.
Through openness I have come to see myself clearly, face the truth about me, try to learn and improve, understand my passions and strength, find love and begin to learn to like myself. That cannot help but be reflected in one's work. And I am told quite often that the more open I have become, the better my writing is.
We live in a hiding culture. In the Fear Nation, it is quite literally considered dangerous, even suicidal, to be honest. We are all imperfect human beings, but it has become a heresy to acknowledge it – just look at the painful posturing and marketing – and lying – our politicians must do. Think what might be if politicians could be open about their lives: the journalists and rivals would have nothing to talk about but the issues that matter.
People tell me every day why they are afraid to be open: what their families and mothers and fathers will think, what their bosses will think, what their neighbors and friends and children will think, how unnerved they would be. They are too busy, too important, too distracted. Too frightened. Everyone must make their own decisions about openness, I am not here to tell anyone what to do. But this is what I am thinking: nuts to them.
I can say that being open has been one of the most liberating, creative and authentic experiences of my life, for all the pain, discomfort and unease it often causes. It is the most healing thing I have ever done. I did not set out to be open as a way of doing good, but I have learned that being open is the most helpful thing I ever do in my writing life. People can look at me and see themselves in the mirror, in good and bad ways.
Every day someone tells me they read my writing even though they sometimes – or very often – disagree with me. I always think the same thing: why would anyone read anyone else they always agree with? What would be the point?
Openness has taken me past that fear of upsetting people, or having people disagree with me, it has stopped me from diminishing my own work and making it less valuable. I don't care what members of my family think, they can tell their own stories if they wish. Openness it is the thing that gives others a measure of their own lives as well as my life. They can take what they want and leave what they don't like behind. That is no problem for me.
Beavis & Butthead, two of my creative inspirations, said repeatedly that because they were stupid, they were free.
I have come to see that because i am open, I am free to be me.
We had a beautiful Thanksgiving Day, quite, peaceful, beautiful. A great beginning to our efforts to re-think the holidays and create new traditions. We had dinner at a friend's house and met some new friends we liked very much. In the morning, we spent some time with the animals and made it a point to thank them for loving us, living with us, and helping us to shape our lives in so many different ways.
The Bedlam Farm idea is about many things, animals are just one part, but they are a thread that runs through much or most of what we do, from work to love to connection and self-awareness, and our wishes for a spiritual life. Minnie and Maria loved one another very much, Maria came with me the night we picked Minnie up in small farmhouse in 2006, shortly after we met for the first time. She was a feral kitten, shy and fearful, traits she still possesses to some degree.
No one who has ever come to an Open House has seen Minnie or touched her. She is a symbol for us, especially after she lost her leg to some animal in the barnyard a few years ago.
Today, we thanked each of the animals in our lives, from Fate and Red to Lulu and Fanny to Chloe and even the sheep. We thought of Simon and Frieda and Lenore and Izzy and Orson and the roosters and the many animals that have challenged us to be patient, taught us how to love gently, opened our hearts and souls up to new experience.
I apologized to the sheep for always showing up with a dog, I told them I couldn't really love them in the way I could love other animals, but I very much appreciated them and promised to treat them gently and well.
The animals shape my writing, my photography, Maria's art. They have helped both of us to understand ourselves, learn how to open up and love. They brought me to hospice and therapy work and help me learn to accept life, rather than mourn and lament it.
Whenever this reclusive barn cat sees Maria, she throws her arms around her and hugs for dear life, and Maria, who has known her almost all of her life, returns the favor.
I have grown to love Minnie as well, we had our own cuddle after Maria was done. Minnie has been through a lot and has never lost her gentleness, faith in us or love for us. I think she even loves Fate.
We very much appreciate the animals in our loves, and we are grateful for the gifts they give us every day, from Chloe to Fate and the sheep and Red's unwavering love and companionship.
In the afternoon, we had a lovely dinner with people whose company we very much enjoyed. We are re-thinking the holidays, building traditions and memories that we can love and recall without pain. We are off to a good start. I have already given Maria all of her Christmas presents, Christmas will be a simple day, free of shopping, discounts, the pressure of gifts or family. We are are building our own holidays anew.