22 January 2017

Passage To India: The Bedlam Fellowship

The Bedlam Fellowship.

All along, I've been planning for Maria's trip to Kolkata, India, from February 16th to the 29th.  I was prepared to be something of a martyr, stoically running the farm by myself in Winter, proving that I can still handle all of the chores by myself, shovel that snow, haul that firewood, feed those animals,walk those dogs, shovel the roof, shop, shovel manure, do laundry and keep the house clean.

My testosterone told me I had to prove to myself that I still had it, I was going to be quite stoic. My editor and Maria upended those plans by meeting with me to strongly urge me to hire someone to come by every morning to do the chores and haul some wood. I protested that I could handle the farm by myself.

But they both pointed out that this wasn't about my ability to handle it, rather it would be like a fellowship at one of those fancy writer's retreats where you can just focus on your work and worry about nothing else.

I needed some convincing, and got some strong-arming.  I said it felt like Downton Abbey, and they both laughed at the ludicrous comparison. These two women know me better than anyone on the earth, and the seed they planted grew and sprouted. It just took a few days for me to crack.

I came to see the idea and accept it without too much fanfare or drama. I could see it would make Maria feel easier and better about going away for two weeks, and i could see it would be a rare opportunity for me to focus on my book project – "Lessons Of Bedlam Farm," while still publishing the blog and taking photos. I won't hire anyone to do that.

Rosemary Ahearn, my editor, sensed it would help me really focus on the book (I've done three chapters) and have less distraction. Maria does a lot of the chores that are sometimes hard for me to do alone.  it would take me a good while every morning.

The backdrop for all this pondering is perhaps obvious to everyone but me. It is the experience of aging, getting older, understanding the new limits on my life, adjusting my sense of self. There are somethings that are just hard for me to do, or that bother my angina, or that are just plain difficult.

I saw Maria's trip as an opportunity to show myself and the world that  I could still manage my own farm. But now, it is an opportunity to do something else. And I will manage my farm for much of the day, just not in the early morning. Win-win, all around.

Maria will, I see, be even freer to focus on her amazing trip, knowing I am not slipping and sliding around in the mud out in the pasture with a bunch of animals banging into me.

I have spent a lot of my life alone, and I know I will miss Maria quite acutely, but I also know how to handle being alone. Voluntary aloneness is very different from the other kind. She will only be good a couple of weeks. And she will be coming back.

I was alone for most of the six years I lived on the first Bedlam Farm, and for much of my life before that. I don't know if that will make it easier or harder, Maria and I are close, we share everything with one another.

I am so excited for her trip, that will compensate for the dislocation and loneliness. I called Cassandra Conety,  vet tech we know well, and respect greatly. She is a farm girl and loves animals and the outdoors, she will come by in the morning on the way to work,  bring in firewood, take the hay out to the animals, fill the water tanks, shovel out the manure in the barn, check on the animals.

I will get up early – I am usually awake around 4 or 5 a.m. and simply go straight to work. It will, as Rosemary and Maria suggested, be like a fellowship. Hmmm…I have never applied for one, they seemed indulgent to me.

I have rarely had the opportunity to focus like that on my work. I can blog as usual, take the dogs out for a walk, take photos. Otherwise, I will get my head around and into this book, an E.B. (hopefully) White'ish report on the things one learns on a farm. It is the kind of book that needs one's full attention, Rosemary knows I suffer from distraction and many other mental disorders. But this is the kind of book that requires much concentration and thought.

So the first Bedlam Farm Writing Fellowship goes to me. In the old days, I was actually planning to offer writing internships at the old farm, which had plenty of room. Now I have one. Life is a wheel. If you wait long enough, everything will come around.

So in the mornings, starting in the dark, I will write as long as it is fresh and forthcoming. There are only so many hours in the day that one can be creative. Then, I will run the dogs and blog. Then lunch, maybe a short nap, another walk, a visit to the Mansion, shopping, the afternoon farm chores – all the things Cassandra will do in the morning. Then reading, dinner, more reading, chores, cleaning, more shopping, doctor and dental visits, and sleep.

I am shedding my reluctance and getting excited about it. I will have to work hard to focus on this, it is not something I have ever done, and I have great trouble about sitting at my computer concentrating while someone else is doing the work of the farm. I don't wish to waste this opportunity, it is, I see, a gift.

You could not find anyone better than Cassandra, she will pay little attention to my fussing and get things done.

Maybe she'll even walk the dogs when I am on a hot writing streak. I will, of course, share the experience.

Posted in General

Help For Refugee Families

Help For Refugee Families

Several hundred refugees are arriving in upstate New York, they could use some inexpensive help with household items like silverware, sheets, glasses, plates, pots and pans, blankets, light strollers, soap, shampoo, teapots. You can see the items requested here. The gifts range from $7 to $30. I will soon be meeting one of these families, will plan on mentoring one, helping them to learn English, fill out forms, take tests, file applications – the stuff of life we take for granted.

Some of these refugees lost everything and have never experienced winter weather like that of upstate New York. They need the smallest things – soap and toothpaste and towels. They do not ask for much. But they need everything.

In the coming years, I believe it is important for me and others to look for ways to do good, to show up, to support the idea of America as a welcoming place, and as a country that does not only welcome the rich and highly trained, but also the tired and the weary and the poor.

I don't want to be part of the argument or the problem, but part of positive solutions. I don't feel superior to anyone or condemn anyone, I just want to help good people who need help and I wish to support the idea of America as a sanctuary, a welcoming and safe place. That is why I am here, that is why I am alive.

There are many demands on your time and money, but I hope you will consider purchasing one of these inexpensive household items for people who are coming to America at an uncertain and are afraid and in need. An Amazon page has been set up for them by the Albany Office of the U.S. Committee for Immigrants and Refugees. If you can, please mark the gifts to the attention of Jake. He is the warehouse manager for the USCRI.

Most of the refugees are settling around the Albany area, about an hour or so from me. If you can help out, that will be great. If not, there will be many opportunities and thanks for considering it.  In a few weeks, Maria and I will get to meet some of the families and the one we will be helping. Thanks for all of the support you have given Maria and I for this work. The Amazon page is here.

Posted in General

Slipping Into Self-Righteousness, The Seeds Of Polarization

Self-right-eous: Having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior. sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, complacent or pious. preachy, superior, hypocritical.

Last night, I wrote a poem about why I marched with Maria in Glens Falls, N.Y. yesterday, it was a very personal poem, a kind of love letter, I suppose, about why going on the women's march in this small upstate New York city was important to her, and thus to me.

It was simply an expression of how I felt about Maria, and her idea of her rights. My poem was not an argument or debate or a cable news panel discussion, and I was not urging anyone else to agree. I write about all kinds of things on my blog – animals, farming, life, community, health, books and movies, photography and friendship.

In a few seconds, a man named Timothy L. Ritchie posted this message on my Facebook Page: "I thought this was about dogs and the farm. If this is gonna be about leftwing pro – abort politics, let me know and I'm out. I want to read about farming and working dogs."

Well, Mr. Ritchie is out, and I wish him the best. I said I write about what I want, not about what he wants. I told him there are many good blogs about dogs and farming, I imagine he has found one now by now, or perhaps, started one himself.

His message was mild by the standards of American political discourse these days, and since Mr. Ritchie had never spoken with me and had no idea what my website is about, I thanked him for coming and said he was probably better off leaving, he had made a good decision.

The exchange was interesting to me, because I was thinking about this relatively new reality in American politics, the rapidly growing idea that the person who disagrees with me is my enemy, not simply another human being seeking to figure out the world, as I am, in his own way. This idea is, to me, a malignant tumor on the American character and soul, it is ripping us apart. I don't wish to do it.

My belief is that we are all doing the best we can, struggling with the same questions, trying to make a life and understand life. I don't believe I am smarter or wiser than anyone, and I have always learned much more from people who disagree with me than anyone else.

When people tell me they enjoy my writing despite the fact they sometimes disagree with me, I find the statement puzzling: Why would anyone want to read someone with whom they never disagree? What can be learned by that? Why bother?

Mr. Ritchie was quick to label me as a "leftie" and to make it clear that if I was going to favor abortion rights, he was leaving. He seemed to feel victimized and aggrieved that I had a different idea about a very complicated and difficult issue than he did. The truth is, I have a lot of ideas, and they change often. Some are conservative, others are not. I have no idea what to call myself, and I don't accept the labeling of me by  other people.

Mr. Ritchie would have blown a fuse reading my blog if he stayed, but if he really wanted to know what I believe, he could simply have asked me or read a few posts on the blog. Instead, he wrote a quick snarky message on Facebook, the new idea of human contact.

Mr. Ritchie could not cross that iron bridge – ideology – and simply see me as a human being –  in most ways probably much like him. That's the struggle I think, to see the people as well as the ideas, to see past the labels and the ideology to connect with another human. A farmer friend told an uppity neighbor one day to settle down, "we both pee standing up." So do Mr. Ritchie and I.

I should say that many of my blog and book readers disagree with me on many things, including abortion and the question of abortion rights. I do not hate them for it, or wish they would go away. They take what they want from me, and leave the rest behind.

How curious, I thought, that I had become Mr. Ritchie's enemy for having a different opinion.  But if you follow cable news or politics, this should not be surprising. I decided I didn't wish to see Mr. Ritchie as an enemy, and that is not up to him, but me.

This is the very heart of the Orwellian idea of a totalitarian society, one that permits only one point of view and punishes disagreement. I don't want to live in that country. Nor do I believe intolerance for free speech and differing opinions is a "right-wing" idea. Many of my readers voted for Donald Trump.

I did not, and I am happy to say that not a single one of them have stormed off (that I know of) or stopped reading my writing or my blog. I have written several times that I hope Donald Trump succeeds, he is our President and I hope he keeps his promises. That upsets people, they feel I am supporting his agenda, much of which is disturbing to me.

But I disagree. I am supporting this man with great power, he is our leader, I hope he finds his humanity and expands it and does some good, whether I like everything he has done or not.

I am proud of the people who stay with me even though they quite often disagree with me. That is the kind of blog I wish to have.

I believe there is always a point of human contact, if one can work at it, and if the doors blocking the way are not too thick. I have learned when i am trapped on those corporate phone trees to seek out the humanity in someone. Once I find it, my troubles are over.

I do not consider people who voted differently me my enemy. They do not consider me their enemy, hopefully, and they are very welcome to read my blog,  which is frequently, but not exclusively, about dogs and farms.

Carl Sagan argues that the greatest detriment to reason is if we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness (a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior) that is the deadly force of polarization. I have witnessed this often in my writing about politics and also in my writing about animals and the animal rights movement.

There, I have seen the deadly force and power of self-righteousness, the embedded idea that the people we disagree with our enemies, to be seen as something other than human, to be seen as immoral and hypocritical people beneath the consideration of the moral society. This is a signature element in the campaigns against the New York Carriage Horses or the elephants in the circus. It is also the signature of discussions on cable new and on social media platforms.

I see epidemic self-righteousness in the animal world, where people believe their beliefs give them an innate sense of superiority over others, and an absolute certainty about what is or is not correct. This idea has infected our politics as well.

Writing more than a century ago, the poet and essayist Walt Whitman, worried about the fragile underpinnings of democracy, urged his fellow citizens to " best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present…. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believed in."

Whitman warned that while America had become a wealthy industrial power and a creator of great wealth, it was becoming an almost complete failure in its social aspects, literature, religious, moral and aesthetic ambitions. We have only grown in wealth and power since his time, but we have somehow been left with little or no soul. Spirituality, humility and self-reflection are no longer part of our political system.

When Mr. Ritchie dismisses me so casually and contemptuously for disagreeing with me, he is dehumanizing me so that can ignore me.  Once I am tagged with a label that is not his, he has no use for me, even though he would gladly use me to amuse him about dogs and farms.

And if I hate him for it and see him as my enemy, I am dehumanizing him. I don't think I would like him very much, but he is not my enemy. I'll stop it there.

Hating each other leaves neither of us with humanity or compassion. We lose our moral ambitions to grow as human beings, and co-exist peacefully and productively with one another. If it's all about money and power and security, there is no aesthetic, there is no moral ground to walk on. Just think about our paralyzed political system, legislators dug in like trench fighters in World War I, taking turns trying to kill one another, never advancing or learning or giving up.

There is no humanity in self-righteousness.

For me, this is at the heart of it, this idea of humanity. It is clear that we have lost it in our civic and political world, and in our technological gathering places, our new communities,  and perhaps by our own hands and fingers.

Whitman was prescient, he foresaw that we have lost our spiritual and moral bearings, we are so preoccupied with money and greed and security and power that we are losing our humanity.

It is wrong for me to believe that people who view the world differently than I do are stupid, immoral, bigoted or inferior to me in my reasoning. There is so much I do not know.  It is a mistake for them to do it to me, neither of us wins, gains, persuades or advances our ideas and values.

Those are the seeds of polarization. I am not more virtuous than anyone else, I do have my own virtues. I believe my convictions are reasonable and sometimes even righteous, but not self-righteous.

I do not ever believe I am totally correct or morally superior. I know that is not the truth, even if I sometimes lapse.

The world is not black and white. The true thinker changes his mind constantly. The ideas of the "right" or the "left" are far too shallow and too narrow to encompass our world. They exist only as shills, to persuade us that we have choices. We do not really.

We are all righteous in our own way, we have our own truths.

Like most people, I sometimes find myself slipping into that way of thinking, but mostly, I try very hard not to do that. We share a common interest – our own country, our own humanity and dignity.

There are so many ways to see the world, not just one, not just mine. I can cling to my beliefs and my values, or change them. If Mr. Ritchie had contacted me, or messaged me, I would have told him that I choose to share my life openly and honestly, and that really has nothing to do with him or what he believes.My life is not an argument, neither is his.

There is plenty of good stuff about dogs and farms for him, and it is free.

Henry David Thoreau, scribbling in his journal on Walden Pond, would not have had to contend with Mr. Ritchie – I doubt he would even have comprehended the idea of him – sending him an instant angry message the moment he expressed a thought, dismissing rather than considering, denying his very right to think freely and express himself, and walking away if he saw anything he didn't agree with.  He is so certain of his beliefs he doesn't need to think about them.

Thoreau was alone on his pond, I am alone in mine. On Facebook, we often do not even permit the other to think, or to respect the process, or give it a chance to breathe.

I am no Thoreau, and I live in a more open world.  Cutting myself off from the world is not an option for me.

It seems we have to decide how to learn to talk to one another again. Our very existence depends on it. We have only one world, we are all heading for the same destination.

The prophets said we will live with one another or perish together, and I believe that. The people who disagree with me will never be my enemy, I hope we will continue to live with and challenge and inspire one another.

And never run away from each other or become enemies because we have different ways of experiencing and understanding the world.

Posted in General

The Meditation Bench: Over The Gulley Bridge

Meditation Bench

My friend Ed Gulley came over yesterday to harass me and muddle over how to pick a spot in our newly-accessible  woodlands behind the farmhouse for a bench to sit on, rest or meditate in our woods. We've been thinking about this for years, but were stumped because of a fast-flowing stream between us and our woods.

Ed came over with a tree stump, some boards and a drill and nails and put a bridge together in about five minutes. He returned with a metal pole he drove into some rocks for me to hang on too. I call it the Gulley Bridge.

We can now access our woods. Ed is not finished. He refuses to discuss this with me, mostly because he knows I am seriously challenged when it comes to mechanical things or details. He will only talk to Maria about it and he will translate for me.

The new idea in this very fertile mind – the say agriculture is the mother of all arts – is a bench built into the base of this leaning tree, I can't really explain it, Ed was acting it out. Ed is into the arts, they are his world, and he has become astonishingly creative, as many farmers with little money and lots of work become.

Sometime in the future, I will have a bench to sit on out in my woods. Ed described it in great detail, I do not understand a word he said. A friend once told me I am very lucky to be alive, given the way my mind words. It would be a good spot to meditate and think about what I am going to write. Maria and Ed understand each other, I know my place.

Posted in General