20 August 2017

The “Yes, No” Dress: Finding Love

By: Jon Katz

Finding Love

It is a dangerous thing for a writer to write about love, since it is one of the most explored and considered subjects in the history of writing of the earth. How could I possibly have something new to add to the writings about love?

It is easy to be trite about love, and obvious. But I do think about it, it did change my life, more than any other single thing. And today, I need to write about it.

Like most people, I have been looking for love all of my life, and like many people, it eluded me. I thought I found it more than once, but I was, as they say, not available to love anyone or to be loved. When I broke down almost completely as I approached the age of 60, I saw that I had to change, or I would die before I found it.

I did change. I swore I would not end my life in a loveless way. I was committed to doing whatever I had to do have a meaningful kind of love in my life, even as I could not have told you what that is. My dogs were not enough for me, but they did, I think, keep alive until the real thing appeared.

This dress – she called it the "yes/no" dress –  has scores of nails embedded in the fabric. It has been with us from the beginning, a sort of curious and sometimes fearful fiber-child. It moves with us, and hangs outside of Maria's studio every day of the year, in all weather, and in the late afternoon, when the sun brushes against it, I sometimes come out to visit it and photograph it, although I rarely post the pictures.

I usually decide that the meaning the dress is so personal it would have no relevance to anyone. Some of the good people who have put up with me from the beginning know something of it's story, but most of the people who pass by don't give it a thought.

But today, I wanted to write about it.

When I first met Maria, she took over one of my barns in Hebron and began resuming her art after a long and difficult time. This dress was one of the very first things she made in my barn, she made it for an art show we both decided to sponsor after we first met, we called it "Art Harvest" and it was held at Gardenworks in Salem. It was the first time I ever showed my photographs to the world and the first time Maria had shown her art in years.

For both of us, a coming out, and the start of a remarkable friendship.

I grasped the symbolism of the dress immediately. It said get close/go away at the same time. It was a warming and an invitation, I took it almost as a dare, or perhaps, a challenge. Maria did not like men very much then, and she isn't crazy about them now. She trusted very few people.

I knew I had to be patient and thoughtful if we were to ever get together, and if she could ever love me as I had begun to love her.

I can't quite explain it, but I always knew Maria and I belonged together, even long before I thought it possible. Maria seemed to see right through the fire and mist to the heart and soul of me, she didn't seem to see the craziness, anger, confusion and crippling depression and anxiety that was eating me up, or take it seriously.

She saw the good in me, and so I came to see some of it as well, as if looking in a powerful mirror.

Maria saw the person I wanted to be,  and saw it as the person I was.

She cut through the bluster and defense and posturing and delusion and hiding.

She saw beyond the mental illness. I think i did the same with her.

I saw the artist that wanted to come out right away, and offered her a barn to work in,  some head and creative space she desperately needed. Although it was several long and hard years before we became lovers, this interaction connected us as friends and gave our friendship the chance to grow. It started out well and only became better and richer.

The "yes/no" dress was a reminder and a symbol that I would have to work long and hard to win her trust, let alone her love. She had just ended a long and unhappy marriage, as I had, and neither one of us was looking to make another mistake.

The "yes/no" dress appeared in the art show and then hung in Maria's new barn (she thought barn was hers from the first day). I saw it almost every day, even though Maria never mentioned it and I never asked about it. We both were very closed up at the time, even standoffish. Although I rarely saw her (she worked late at night) I left an almost daily stream of chocolate, cheese and popcorn for her. It was always gone in the morning.

My big and beautiful farm was a fort and a castle as much as a home, I hid from the world there and went mad from loneliness and sickness of the head. Maria brought it to life.

It was a good place to withdraw while I worked to heal. It was a good place for Maria to find herself as an artist again, and the rest is, of course history. As I began to heal, I became more available, more open to love. As she did her art, so did she. From the first, we simply seemed to know one another. We never lied to each other, hurt each other, or even misunderstood one another. We each felt known by the other, and I can't even say how important that is when it comes to love.

No relationship is perfect, we had and have our challenges and differences, but we are always open and  honest about them and now, confident in our trust and respect. Arguments do not have to be hurtful, they can be productive and cleansing. We do not ever build up resentments, we get them out right away, and they did in the light. I learned to say I'm sorry, although it still sticks in my throat.

I knew I would have to learn the art of listening to have a relationship, I knew I had to be a source of nourishment, not of doubt or anxiety or any kind of denigration. To love fully is to give yourself to another completely, to take the leap of faith and walk right over the cliff. You will either land on something soft or go to pieces. You have to take the risk. You have to be open, and then open, and then open again.

Love is about acceptance, and certainly, compromise after compromise. It is about empathy, the putting oneself in the shoes of another. It is about surrendering some parts of oneself to another human being, while never surrendering identity and self-respect. Lovers never make each other feel small.

I love Maria for who she is, and not for anything else, and the same is true of her love for me, or so I believe. The "yes/no" dress was the beginning of our  relationship, and it taught me that Maria would have to decide to take the frightful plunge also, if we were to love one another. I always remembered that the name of the dress had a "yes" in it as well as a "no."

To love well is not simple, not easy, not even necessarily romantic. To do anything worthwhile or well takes a lot of hard work, and must never be taken for granted. Determination helps, some courage is necessary. Love is, I think, about the small things, as well as some bigger ones.

Fear, after all, is just a geography, a space to cross. I just had to close my eyes and walk through it.

Two damaged people had to choose between life or a loveless existence. We both said yes, and I am ever grateful to the "yes/no" dress, which hangs outside Maria's studio bearing witness to the choices we make in life, and the risks we have to take.

We both said "yes."


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Wrenching Week That Was. But What We Are Not.

By: Jon Katz

The Wrenching Week. Fate on the garden wall.

What politicians  or media people do or say can be critically important, but I sometimes think we make much too much of it, one way or the other. I am not especially interested in the idea of reporters or politicians as moral leaders, teaching me wright and wrong.

To me, this is begging for disappointment and despair. If I don't know right from wrong, I am not going to learn it on Fox News or CNN.

It will take me a long while to digest Charlottesville and what it really says or means. Like so many others, I  was saddened and shocked.

I did not ever imagine I would see hundreds, if not  thousands of young American men and women marching down a Main Street of an America City with their photogenic torches,  arms raised in Nazi salute, vowing openly to remove Jews and African-Americans from America. The things that go crawl in the night usually stay out of the light, and when they don't, they usually die in the light.

People used to hide those feelings, there was always a great shame attached to them here. When I saw the great, wide, deep and heartfelt response across America to this jarring parade of hatred, I saw what I feel is the true heart and soul of America rising up, finally shocked off of Facebook.

America is a mess at times – like now – but not nearly the kind of mess it needs to be in for Nazi's to rise to power. And it is still by far the best mess I know of.

Only in America: Witness all the tough young men from the march who are now complaining bitterly that the disclosure of their identities is unfair and is damaging their careers and social lives.  One of them wrote on Twitter that he couldn't get a date now. This is the thing about America that is so rich and unique: can you imagine a true Nazi complaining about being outed on Twitter and chased off Match.com?

But bigots and thugs are not the only ones who spread fear, the well meaning and anxious and the people who make so much money off of cable news are much better at it.

Many people are sounding the alarm, saying it would be dangerous to relax. But does anyone in our world really think the danger is relaxing too much in our country? Along with Jews and blacks and the alarm-sounders on Facebook and the mobs on Twitter, we would first have to get rid of smart phones, Ipads, computers and almost all of social media.

Jews and blacks and women and Native-Americans and refugees and immigrants, legal or otherwise, know better than to try relaxing in this country, the moral philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that the problem with many Jews is that despite their hubris, they are generally ignorant of the true nature of politics and political systems.

They never see it coming, they are blindsided every time. That should keep them from dozing off.

African-Americans live in a bizarre, almost surreal world where almost every single one of them speaks of a racist and oppressive- and sometimes murderous –  white culture, while very few whites agree or see racism at all. So many black people see whites as living with their heads in the sand.

A black child  sees a statue and sees a moment to brutality and slavery, a young white man looks at the same statue and sees a noble heritage. A white person sees the police as protectors and guardians, almost every black parent int the country sees them as something very different.

We live on different planets, I suppose we always have. Men are continuously stunned by the fear and anger that surfaces among women about men.

Women, Hispanics, Native-Americans, legal and illegal immigrants and refugees are anything but relaxed, just look at the news. We are told almost hourly that what we most need is to be anxious and angry all of the time, every minute of the day.

Like him or not, I do not look for any President, surely not this one, for moral direction. The idea that strong statements from him about race and bigotry would suddenly bring our country together and send the Nazi's running back to their holes is a stretch for me, a pathway to disappointment and anxiety.

I am more inclined to look within than without. It is always easier, wrote James Baldwin, "to give a name to the evil without than than to locate the terror within. And yet," he wrote, "the terror within is far truer and  far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant."

I may be both blind and self-delusional, one of those much maligned Jews who is born blind, and who never acts until it is too late, but I must also try to be honest. I do not see a Nazi nation around me, not in the White House, not in government, not in the military,  and certainly not in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of brave and wonderful young people  who are taking to the streets every day to remind us of what we are not.

I hear them and believe them. I accept what we are not. Isn't what we are bad enough? A lot of young white men, it seems are in great trouble, living in confusion and despair, making the very worst decisions about what will help them.

For my part, I do not believe that old men like me understand how the truth and reality of the world, or define it. We belong to the past, not the future, we have nothing to prove and little at stake. All we can do is stand by the sidelines and wave our handkerchiefs at the idealistic and energetic warriors of the future. No one is going to take their future in America away from them unless they wish to give it up.

And Donald Trump has no more to say about that future than I do, and good for the future on both counts. Nobody is looking to either one of us for that, we are the men whose knees hurt and sometimes need a strategy to bend down.

As for us Jews, history has already taken a good swipe at replacing us, our Nazi's are late.

More than half of the Jews in America – including me – have left the faith behind or (sorry grandma), worse, married gentiles and survived. We are mostly fading into the American tapestry, the very one I believe very strongly will be torn and sullied from time to time, but which will never be replaced or rewoven by Nazis.

A good friend asked me yesterday how he should feel about Charlottesville and the young Nazi's marching with their shields. I said I am not a seer or a prophet or a pundit, I can only say how I feel about it, and what I do is to look away from the politicians and media pundits and and gasbags – in case you have not noticed, they have gotten everything wrong for decades, and seem to be stunned by everything. They follow history, they don't lead it.

I wouldn't pay too much attention to people who march in the night with hateful banners to get on TV either.

I would look more to the people shouting from the rooftops and town squares what it is we are not. I listen to them. And then get on with my own good life.

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Devota, Valentine: “Every Day, We Are Blessed To Be Alive”

By: Jon Katz

"Every Day, We Are Blessed To Be Alive"

The purpose of life is not to be happy," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. "It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

More than two decades ago, Devota Nyiraneza (right) carried her daughter Valentine, strapped to her back, across Central Africa for more than 2,400 miles. Devota was one of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi tribe members fleeing the Rawandan genocide, which took 800,000 lives. It took her a year to get to a U.N. Refugee camp in Cameroon.

Thanks to the support of the Army of Good, we are helping Devota to stabilize her life, and help her children continue their education in the United States.

Along the way she endured starvation, rape, murder, extreme heat and exhaustion. Tens of thousands of fleeing refugees, starving themselves, left their children in the hope that someone might come to feed them. All along the way, soldiers and militiamen fired shotguns at the refugees and slaughter many thousands more.

It took Devota a year to make that trip, at the end her skin had all peeled off and she was walking on bones. "I did not think I would ever survive," she said,"but I never once thought of leaving my daughter behind."

I asked her what kept her alive. "God," she said, "I never stopped praying to God."

Valentine, an articulate, charismatic young woman is 22 now – she spent most of her young years in a refugee camp.  She is quite special, and her mother's grueling journey has shaped her life.

She remembers nothing of that journey, but she acknowledges that it has shaped and changed her life. She is sad to find that the political atmosphere in America involving race and immigration is also frightening and disturbing.  She is studying to be a nurse at the Albany Medical Center, but has interrupted her studies to help the family pay back some loans they took out, including one to buy a new car after an automobile accident.

"Every day is a gift," said Valentine, "I have to make a difference at all times." I went to Albany yesterday with Maria to give Devota another check – this one for $3,000, and also to meet Valentine. We are close to paying off the $10,000 loan Devota took out, thinking it was a financial aid grant.

We were sitting in Devota's tiny apartment in South Albany Sunday, it was a warm and sunny afternoon.

The family made us feel especially welcome, we sat and talked and drank from bottled water.

Devota shares the space with her four children, all of them the result of rape. Rape was a constant horror to the women on the march, the soldiers and militiamen they encountered in their flight became notorious for raping the women refugees. Devota kept all of these children and is raising them still.

I gave the check to Francis Sengabo of RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center in Albany, they will help schedule and administer loan payments taken out by mistake to help Devota's oldest son go to college to study engineering. I hope to help Devota further.

Everyone in the family has interrupted their education to pay back loans that were necessary for them to survive. Devota is working two jobs, one helping the disabled with Catholic Charities, the other mopping floors at the Albany Medical Center.

Valentine hopes to return to Africa – she identifies as an African – in time to see her grandmother, who is old and frail. It was especially touching to meet Valentine and see the two of them together. "I thank God for making it here," she said. "When I think of all of the things my mother endured to get us here, I know I have to make something out of my life."

Devota remembers coming across an abandoned baby and picking it up. She carried it for nine hours until, by some miracle, she came across the child's father, who had been searching for her. The child's mother, who was starving, prayed for someone to find her child and feed her.

The hardest thing for her on that long journey, Devota he says, was to see the bodies of the dead children, spread across the forest floor for hundreds of miles. For most of them, there was no one to come and save them, no food to bring them. She said she could never have left her daughter behind in those forests, she would have laid down and died with her first.

I showed Valentine photos from Maria's website, and she lit up seeing Maria's potholders and quilts. The two clicked right away with one another and we invited Valentine to come to Bedlam Farm. Maria offered to teach her how to make potholders and quilts, and she said she very much wants to come.

I asked Valentine if she was following the ugly struggle over refugees and immigration and race in America, she said she was. Every night she worries about her older brother – where he is, who he is with, if he is all right. "We all bleed the same," she said. She said because the children have never had a father, she seems especially responsible for their well-being. She is acutely conscious that there are people in America who hate her, for the color of her skin and for her coming to the United States.

When I hear the refugees tell the story of their suffering and horror, it hurts my heart to think that they now have to face fear hatred, and uncertainty in America, when they left so much of it behind. I keep telling them this is not the real America, the real America is fighting for it's heart and soul. That remains

Valentine is a remarkable woman, perhaps the result in part of having a remarkable mother. She is determined to make her mark on the world, she hopes to resume here nursing training. I told her I'd love to talk with her about the possibility of applying to college.

So thanks so much for helping me to meet and know these two extraordinary women.

I am committed to staying in their lives, if they wish it, and Maria is eager to help Valentine especially. I am committed to writing about the new refugees to America, about whom so many lies have been told. I believe it's time for such truth.

In Devota I find a person of great strength and character. She understands the value of freedom, she works hard, is devoted to her family, breaks no laws of any kind. I can't think of a better candidate to be an American or to come to America.

Your support is helping to transform the lives of this family.

In America, I've often read about a cycle of poverty that draws the poor and vulnerable into a network of loans, payments and pressure that makes it almost impossible to move forward. Devota faced enormous handicaps when she came to America – she was a single mother with four children, no support of any kind from the father's, no English skills or relevant work experience.

She has done an amazing job of putting a life together for her children, two of whom are already seeking some form of higher education. Devota's life was upended by the loan she mistakenly took out and also by a car accident last year that demolished her car and forced her to get a new one.

RISSE is helping her navigate these financial concerns.  So are you, the Army of Good.

Against all kinds of odds, Devota has made it to America raised some beautiful children – we met three of them yesterday. And you have helped her to regain control of her life and help her children to move forward with their education.

Thanks so much for your support in this, it will make a great difference in the lives of this family. Devota is now a United States citizen, so are her children.

I am determined to meet with the refugees and immigrants who have come to America in recent years, and tell their stories. We are lucky to have people of such character and drive come to our country. If you wish to help me in this work,  you can donate to my refugee fund at my post office box, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge. N.Y., 12816 or via Paypal, [email protected]

This work now seems even more urgent than before. I will stick with it.

Blessings to all of you.

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19 August 2017

In The Garden, Saturday. The Power Of Imagination

By: Jon Katz

The Power Of Imagination

The fierce power of imagination is a gift of the human mind, it is unique among all of the living things on the earth. Joined with the glory of the mind, the miracle of the conscience, the ethical depth of humans, and the innate sense of the divine, imagination is a gift of the spirit, holy in every sense.

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The Little Free Library Catches On

By: Jon Katz

Catching On

Our LittleFreeLibrary is catching on, at least a half dozen of the books we put in it are gone, and three or four new books have replaced them. The children's books (mine and others) are gone, and two novels have been. We saw three or four books in the library today that were not ours, and haven't read.

It took a few weeks, as other little library owners have suggested, but once people figure out what this is, they seem to enjoy it and are happy to use it. I'll put some more books in tomorrow. This is a community grass roots project that has caught fire, there are 40,000 little free libraries in the United States now.

The idea is to put good books in the little library, and people can take a book (free) and replace it if they can and are able. Books deserve nine lives. The Internet is about much more than nasty messages.

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