Susie, our gentle ewe, is the mother of Liam, our gentle ram (wether). He sometimes challenges Red, but never pushes it too far. He is otherwise gentle and easy, and he produces some lovely wool. He was willing to pose for me a bit today and I like this portrait of our gentle ram. He never pushes anybody around, he has never butted me or Maria, and he defers to the imperious Gang Of Four.
Sometimes, the rewards of teaching are profound.
I met Caroline Ashton six or seven years ago when I was a hospice volunteer working with my border collie Izzie, my first hospice dog. Some of you might recall the photos I published on my blog of Caroline's beloved husband Noel, who died shortly after Izzy and I visited him. He loved Izzy, and I loved being with these two, their love for one another was something you could reach out and touch.
I confess I loved Caroline from the first time I her, this remarkably gentle, loving and decent person. I knew a number of her former students – she retired to care for Noel shortly before I met her – and if you heard the way they spoke of her, you would love her too, even if you hadn't met her.
She was one of those teaches who knew and fought for every one of her students, each one. And left them with good thoughts about themselves. One of them is in my class with her, and the connection that still exists between the two is a powerful testament to the wonder of a good teacher.
Caroline adored Noel and she wanted to write about her life with him, but she was too overcome with grief to figure out how.
I invited her to join the first writing class I taught, at Hubbard Hall, she ran away from it for five years, and I kept running after her. I knew she had some beautiful words in her, I heard them whenever she speak, she was convinced she was not a writer, but I knew she was, and I suspected she would come around one day.
Caroline is a tough cookie, and I never doubted she would show up one day.
After five years of my gently badgering her – she is not someone who can be pushed – she appeared class, it was, I think, a year ago. She brought her very wonderful journals, full of notes, ideas, white-outs, markers, notecards and scribbles. She carried them in her bag like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many were love letters to Noel.
If you looked at them, – I saw it, everyone in the class saw it – you could see that a beautiful writer she is. But until today, she wouldn't give me one to read or take home. She wrote some powerful pieces about Noel, and then began to unfold, to write about her life, her world, her poignant and insightful ideas, her life. Her language was always beautiful and lyrical – as she taught so many students to be in their writing.
Like all good writers, she never wrote to make herself look good, but to tell the truth. She has touched my heart by telling me that Maria and I remind her of her and Noel. That is a wonderful thing to hear.
The class loves Caroline, as I do, and has encouraged her. We are a safe place, if nothing else. Today, Caroline brought a poem to the class.
It is titled "She Is Not A Writer..." This was a secret message to me, I recognized it right away, it was a joke between us, Caroline telling me a thousand times she was not a writer, me sputtering stubbornly back that she was. I often thought, what could Caroline do, if she were teaching me. I knew she would never give up on me. And I knew she would never give up on herself.
Here are the last three verses of her poem:
"She was not a writer,
yes, she wrote professionally,
report cards, conference write-ups,
meeting notes, weekly letters to parents, lesson plans…
Yes, she wrote for herself,
diaries, journals, letters, memories and jots,
She was not a writer…she said.
And yet, she wrote..and wrote…and writes."
I teared up when I read this, and I kept my head down, and foolishly hid it from the class, an old reflex that the teacher should be strong and tough. I did not have any models to follow.
I never had a teacher like Caroline, not once in my whole life, and if I had, I imagine my life would have been different, my writing also. Teaching can be a powerful gift, to the teacher and the parent, and I told Caroline today that this is why I decided to teach writing, so that I might try to do for someone what she had done for so many.
Encouragement is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer one another.
I told Caroline I sensed a poet in her writing, and she announced that she has been writing poetry for some time, a surprise to me, her writing instructor. She will bring some to the class next week, and I will begin harassing her to get them published.
Yes, Caroline, you are a writer. Who writes…and writes..and writes.
A Facebook troll who e-mails me once in a while challenged my claim to have rejected the ideologies and labels of the left and the right. No one labels me, and I try not to label anyone else. But a troll is a troll.
My troll's politics – I think he likes me in his own way, he stays in touch – are very much of grievance and anger, even revenge, and I have this feeling he's a nice, if somewhat insecure young man. I'd love to mentor him. He got me thinking to just what my ideology really is.
He seems self-pitying to me, and I know he is because it makes him crazy to hear it. He believes he has suffered greatly at the hands of elitists like myself, and he is relishing his turn. Suffering, I told him, is relative, I hope he reads some history.
After some thought, I e-mailed him back about my own ideology.
The word that kept coming to mind was "hope."
"Hope" is one of those words that is tossed around like confetti, especially in organized religion where the idea of hope is closely tied to faith, and a belief in one God or another. My idea of hope is different, it means to me a kind of faith, an attitude of the mind and way of looking at life that is based on an expectation of a good or positive outcome of events, both in my own life and the world at large.
In the Christian faith, hope means to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone, or to expect something beneficial in the future. In the Hebrew Bible, to hope is to trust, especially in God. When Jeremiah addresses God, he says "our hope is in you."
My trust is in the essential goodness of people, which I see again and again in my life. People are good, given the chance. People are awful, given the chance. Again, a choice for me to make. Is the cup half full…? The people I know who believe people are inherently bad are not happy people that I care to be around.
I know many people who are feeling hopeless and despair right now.
As it happens, the opposite of hope is dejection, hopelessness and despair. That is not my ideology.
For me, this is an easy choice, I do not want to see the world through the prism of dejection, hopelessness and despair, I have felt all of those things in my life, and hope is much better. I am plenty cynical and windblown, and have seen lots of trouble. I am no Pollyanna, but on balance, the life I have lived has reaffirmed hope for me.
It is not even close. Politics, of all things, is not going to take that from me.
I don't see a great deal of hope in the world beyond me, and it sometimes makes me feel myopic or naive or just insane.
Perhaps my real hope is that I am not blind and dumb, but of sound mind and realistic expectations.
The people who despair are shocked to learn their worldview is incomplete, they only speak or listen to one another, or to the nightmarish news. The people who say they are victorious now are hopeful, but there is also the feeling of anger, even vengeance in their kind of faith, in their ideology.
My Facebook troll assumes I am part of the vast conspiracy of elitism and arrogance that he is come to hate, and he was reveling in what he thought must be my own rage and despair. "That's how I felt all of these years. My turn." I told him vengeance was not a political ideology that works for me, if it was wrong for him, it is wrong for everyone.
That quieted him for the moment.
I sit in my favorite pew in the Church of the Open Mind, or try to, and I am not feeling despair or dejection. Change is coming, I believe some will be good, some not, and I do not believe anyone, including me certainly, can really know what is ahead or exactly how to feel about it.
Hysteria and argument are not ideologies to me.
I told my troll friend that I am hopeful many people will come to awakenings in their own way and time, and that the ultimate outcome will be both necessary and ultimately, good. We all seem to be finally paying attention to one another.
Along the way, we will be reminded once again that life does not move in a straight line, or worry much about our hopes and wishes. Our fears are not significant. Grace in life does not come from a lack of struggle, rather from our response to struggle and pain. Hope is, for me the purest and most Godly response.
Suffering is as much a part of life as breathing, and the meaningful life is one that rises to challenge, not one that runs or hides from it.
I am an older man, and proud of that, we older men have seen a few things in or lives and know a few things. I cherish this time of life, it is a gift to finally know a thing or two.
And one of them is this: hope, like love, is a powerful force in the world. We are insignificant and small, our task is to live our own lives well and with meaning and purpose.
I am nothing but hopeful about that.
Emma sent me this lovely photo of Robin, and I took it personally, I decided she was smiling for me. We are entering a new phase in our relationship, I probably won't see her for several months, until Spring, when she may come up to see the farm for the first time. I've been to New York City a number of times, but things are frantic on the farm in the winter, it is harder to leave, and we are coming up on Maria's trip to India, which will consume life for a good while.
I'm also working on my book "Lessons From Bedlam Farm" and am honing in on it, and I can be quite obsessive. So as you can hear in my voice letter, we are going to have to find some new ways to communicate with one another and stay close. That will fall on me, I think, not her.
This is my start, it is a creative solution, and I will get use to it – this took me four or five tries, I was a bit nervous, which is unusual for me. I love this child's smile, it radiates personality and touches me. The first, I think of many.
As I've written, Robin and I face a number of geographic and even emotional obstacles, when I came up to the farm, I made it difficult to be a close part of my family. Emma and I are working that out, I hope Robin and I can do the same. Robin and I will have to find our own way to love one another and stay in touch. I'm in.
Maria and I use an old pitchfork to clean out the hay in the barn and dump it into the pasture. I am kind of obsessed with keeping a neat barn, I don't really know why, I don't keep a neat anything else. When I use the pitchfork I feel especially connected to the farm, it touches something inside of me that feels old and timeless.
I suppose we were all farmers once, we all lived on a farm, it is inside of all of us. Maria said the same thing yesterday, "the pitchfork wakes something in me," she said, "I think I was a peasant once." I like that, the pitchfork brings out the peasant in me too, and my grandmother told me often that we came from hardy peasant stock. Back to the future.