29 January 2017

Brattleboro, Vt: A Town That Remembers What People Are For

What People Are For

As I travel through different American cities and towns, I often get the feeling that our urban centers have forgotten what people are for. I see so many box stories, so few people on the streets. Everyone is in their own space, usually disconnected from one another.

Cities, like the rest of America, have been corporarized, People are either afraid to go downtown, or can't afford downtown, or there is no downtown. Real people have all been driven off, replaced by box stores or the rich. Somehow, Brattleboro has escaped that awful fate.

People still rule there. It is not uncommon for someone to walk up to us on the street and smile, and say how nice it is to see a couple in love.

Maria and I have been going to Brattleboro, Vt. for some years now, it has become one of our favorite places to go to get a way, or have a short vacation. The city is compact, diverse, full of people, all kinds of people. They often seem very connected to one another, they smile, nod chat about life and the weather. People with berets, kids in tattered jeans, people with bears to their waists, artists, writers, poets, people with beads that rattle when they shake their heads.

When we first came to Brattleboro, the downtown was devastated by a fire that gutted the massive Brooks Hotel, right in the middle of town. The hotel has been renovated, and a bunch of good new restaurants and idiosyncratic businesses have opened – a Gold and Platinum specialist right next to a fine Turkish restaurant.

There is even a big old pharmacy in a former church or school where  people come out to meet you and talk about the best medicine for your cold. They even go find it for you.

There are all kinds of funky businesses and cafes and even one of the last mystery book stores in America, always open but mysteriously free of people. The town is overrun with people, street people, hippies, bearded prophets, people walking pigs, many dogs, free spirits, runaways begging for money.

Our favorite restaurant, I think, is the Korean restaurant called Shin-La, the zucchini pancakes and chicken rice soup are incomparable. The side streets are filled up with giant used bookstores and specialty stores – great baby clothes and toys, falafel palaces,  music shops, an organic bagel emporium,  junk and antique stores, psychics and gemstone sellers, one of the best food co-ops in America, art galleries, a vast  hospice thrift store where Maria often pulls some strange fabric out of dusty corner, consignment shops with amazing socks and hats.

We love to stay in the Latchis Hotel, an amazing Art Deco restoration project that is a crown jewel of the town.

You park in the lot next door, if the lot is full you get a lesson in working the parking meters on the street.

The rooms have huge ceilings, the walls are solid, each room has its own name and identity. The old hotel is a work in progress, every time we come something new has been added or fixed, the rooms are always clean and fun.  It is a work in progress. The Latchis has its own hotel dog and is closed between the hours of noon and l p.m. while the staff has lunch.

Diane, who cleans our floor, remembers us from the last visit, and she is happy for me to take her portrait sometimes.

Our hotel bill for Saturday night was $124.

The Latchis has an exotic history – it fell into disrepair and has been reborn – it is thick with atmosphere, friendly people, great prices, rooms where the old bathroom fixtures have been deliberately preserved, it is not for snooty four-star people (I give it five stars on Trip Adviser)  but a treasure for everyone else. I can't recommend it highly enough. At night, I imagine running into ghosts from the grand old ballroom, now four cinemas.

The Latchis movie complex and theater is in the ground floor, you can just walk down the stairs and go see a first run movie or some cultural event (last week a testament to Hieronymous Bosch)  and ogle the beautiful painted ceilings at the same town.

Brattleboro  fairly bristles with character, and writing this, I realize just how much Maria and I love it.   So many upstate New York and Vermont cities are in awful shape, casualties of the loss of manufacturing jobs and mills that we keep hearing so much about. Brattleboro has been saved, and is giving rebirth to itself. You feel good just walking down Main Street.  It is an inspiring place for us.

I imagine the politics are insane there, it is one of the few small towns with a foreign policy.  I don't want to know any more than that. The newspaper has been taken over by the reporters after the owners fled long ago. It is hanging on. Sitting on the New Hampshire and Massachusetts border, the town has a drug problem, like all Vermont cities. But is is unquestionably vibrant and ascending.

The downtown is very much and fascinating to walk around in, it is lined with gorgeous old brick and art deco and mill factories and apartment buildings, yet it has not lost a shred of it's greatest draw, it's humanity.  Everything is within walking distance. I always stop to take photos at The People's Apartment house, just off the center of town. There is always somebody highly photogenic sitting on the corner, usually with a dog, happy to pose for one or two dollars, or for nothing, if it comes to that.

And there is someone sitting with a beret or magazine or book at almost every window. People reading books are ubiquitous in Brattleboro, and are almost as welcome as dogs. Some people are strange, they talk to themselves and speak in tongues. They are almost always friendly.

Almost everyone who walks by smiles, says hello, or nods. That matters. You end up smiling back.

Mostly, I love that Brattleboro has remembered what people are for. Somehow, they have kept the box stores out, it doesn't look like every other place, it doesn't look like any other place.  I do all of my clothing shopping – jeans, socks, underwear, shirts at Sam's, the block long clothing and outfitter's store where you can always get a small bag of fresh popcorn, and the floor manager remembers my name and jeans size.

Maria I both love the different people in the town, the architecture, all of that brick, the gorgeous murals, the very wonderful Latchis, and the general feeling of the place.

If you wish to remember what people are for, you might want to go visit.

Posted in General

Robin On The March In New York City. Help For The Refugees.

Robin On The March

My granddaughter Robin and her mother went to Battery Park in New York City this afternoon to protest the government's neew restrictions on refugees and immigration. Thousands of people marched with her, Robin is getting used to marching, and i suspect that's a good thing, I imagine Emma will be marching a lot. I love the idea of a new hell-raiser in the family. Robin seems to take all this excitement and everything else in stride.

I am proud of these strong and compassionate women.

An idea for being positive and doing good and feeling good.

If you are sick of dissembling politicians and pompous panelists and various angry people on social media ranting about the left and the right, here is a surefire way for you to feel good: Check out out the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigration Amazon gift page, set up to provide aide to the scores of refugees, some from Syria, who made it into the United States  before the government slammed the door shut.

I know a good deal about these refugees, most are women and children, they have been exhaustively and repeatedly vested, some for two to four year in refugee camps, they have suffered greatly, lost everything. I will promise you that they are no threat to you, or too your country.  I am quite astonished to see all of these tough and tough-talking politicians terrified of these battered women and children.

If you knew these people, you would hardly believe what you are hearing and seeing from our government.

They need towels and plates and blankets and pillows, teapots and silverware and cups and saucers.

They have arrived in America with a very small stipend (much of which they have to pay back in the middle of an upstate New York winter.) They have come straight from refugee camps and have lost everything. If you would like to help them, inexpensively and easily, please check out the Amazon refugee gift page. The gifts range from $6 to $30.

Some of the refugees are presenting an art show in Albany on March 30, Maria and I have been asked to help promote, which we are very happy to do. I will also soon be meeting the family that Maria and I will be helping to mentor. I am glad they got through before the gates slammed. I hope they will one day be reunited with their families.

Skip the arguments and rationalizing. You can just help, it costs little and does much good. They need everything.

Posted in General

The Doll In The Window

The Doll In The Window

Maria and I were in Brattleboro, Vt. yesterday, one of our favorite towns. I saw this doll in a store window and was struck by the image. Dreamy and mystical.

Posted in General

Thrilling Words For Me Now: Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly…

Act Justly, Love Mercy…

I have never been drawn to patriotic chest-thumping or flag waving, I must confess that I have never really had to think all that much about my original faith and its history. The religious figure I have always been the most drawn to is Christ, the real one, not the one politicians and feckless religious people hide behind to further their greed and ambition, or lust for power.

Now, this weekend especially, I am thinking about my country, its values, my heritage and about hypocrisy, perhaps the only thing I truly hate in this world.

And this has been a very good and affirming weekend for me. Thrilling is the word that keeps coming to mind.

Today, I was much uplifted by two things.

One was a letter I received from a very devoted and conservative Presbyterian pastor I met a few years ago while I was still living in West Hebron on the first Bedlam Farm. She was walking up the hill with her dog, visiting a friend. We stopped and talked about dogs, religion, life. I remember the conversation well, Maria says I have a soft spot for Presbyterian pastors in the country, and it is true, they do a lot of good.

The pastor is head of a very Republican, very conservative congregation. We have stayed in touch, almost entirely through e-mail and some telephone calls. She is always trying to help her congregants in one way or another, getting them a dog, trying to pay their vet bills, seeking animal therapy for them.

She wrote to say she remembered my farm fondly, "the braying of the donkeys, your wonderful stories of farm life…I am really writing to thank you for your blog post from yesterday, "Comfort On A Sad Day."  She shared my lament of a heavy heart yesterday, she said, and "truth be told, what I would really like to preach this morning is your post. I am thankful that the lectionary is Jesus' Beatitudes and Micah's 6:8- "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."

I love this idea for me, for everyone, of acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with  God. This is precisely what I wish for myself, exactly what the true Christ preached and stood for and yes, died for.

And I loved her note. Words do matter still, and so does truth. Her message was a sign to me, a signal.

I have many good friends up here who are Presbyterians, they did not vote the way I voted, they do not share many of my beliefs. I have great respect for them, they are not bigots, racists or gullible people. They were left behind and hurting and wanted real change. In the country, the Presbyterian Faith is strong and unyielding, they take Jesus Christ seriously.

But they are not hypocrites.

Like many Christians, they have long worked hard to help refugees and immigrants, bring them to America, offer them comfort and safety. Mercy is an integral part of their faith. They don't try to rationalize Jesus, to fit him into their politics and ambitions, to use him to make excuses for their lives.

To me, they are true Christians, their faith is their truth and their guide. Their God asks much of them, and they deliver in their lives.

A number of them contacted me yesterday, as did the pastor,  to thank me for what I wrote and to say how pained and saddened they were to see that we, as a nation, were abandoning countless women, children, men and families to awful suffering in the cruelest and most unthinking and unnecessary way.

To a one, my friends – and my pastor's congregants – believe that to be a Christian is to help the poor, ease  suffering, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. They want the refugees to come here, to find refuge.

I was so moved by the pastor's letter that I went to an antique jewelry store in Brattleboro, Vt. and bought a cross and I will wear it the next few months, even years, until I feel I have my country back, and that our better angels have saved us from darkness. The cross will remind me to keep my focus,  on mercy and love and humility, I hope, on Christ's message.

And not on argument and judgement and grievance.

The pastor and I are having coffee soon. She said she is going to visit the refugee gift page set up on Amazon by the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigration to help the refugees – almost all women and children – who have already arrived in the United States and desperately need help. We have already filled one warehouse with gifts, but the need is great. Now, on top of all of their suffering, they face permanent separation from their families.

I was born Jewish, but have never felt comfortable in that faith, while I am not religious I have always felt more at home with the spirit and teachings of Christ than almost anyone else.  I don't know if he was the son of God or not, it is not really important to me. I was so happy to hear from some of my Presbyterian friends – these are no liberal Democrats or progressives – that the values I love were also the values they love and retain and will fight to keep.

A lot separates us, a lot unites us.

As a Jew whose family was nearly obliterated in the last century, immigration is an issue that strikes close to home.  I do take it personally. I would not be writing this today if not for America, and its fabled ethos of welcoming the needy and the suffering. My grandmother would never have survived where she was.

Every Jewish family remembers and is  reminded of the people who perished in the most horrible ways because they were turned away and denied refuge by countries that could easily have helped them and taken them in. To be living now in one of those countries  is almost unendurable for me. I cannot abide it, or make excuses for it, and won't. This is not, for me, an argument.

This weekend, our new President has given me a rich and remarkable gift.

He has challenged me to consider and grasp what it is I love about this country, something I just never had to think about that much, I so took it for granted. I do not take it for granted any longer, I see what it is I love about my country, and I will work hard to see that it perseveres and endures. And I will work hard for it.

I am especially grateful to see that so many other people – including many who have ideas that are very different from me – share these values as well. There is, in fact, an American ethos beyond the shallow raging of the left and the right. This was a good day for me.

I was also thrilled – that is the right word, really, it was thrilling – to see so many young people come out to demand justice and mercy. It is always the young who begin revolutions, today had the feeling of something exhilarating. The creaky old men like me chasing after them with their walking sticks when they finally wake up.

And this weekend, I believe, a true revolution has begun. Another American Revolution, coming to remind us of our common values and beliefs. Of who we really are. That is what makes America so special, why I love it so much. I'm in.

I have this fantasy of marching down the highway with my Presbyterian friends and fellow humans, of holding hands, singing hymns, clapping and cheering and laughing, coming together on behalf of love, mercy and humility. The fossilized ideas of the left and the right would just melt away and flow into a raging stream.

I have a problem with hypocrisy, I have long tried to get past it, but so far, have not been able to do it. Only the hypocrite, wrote Hannah Arendt, is really rotten to the core. In politics, she wrote, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy.

So I will keep on  wearing my cross to remind me of what Jesus Christ, the real one, said:  to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. To remind me to stand up for my values, but not denigrate the beliefs of others, to live by example, not argument, to do good and show mercy.

This is what my faith requires of me.

I am happy to be reminded once more than there are so many people of good faith who are not hypocrites. Some politicians as well. I think Jesus Christ would be content.

Posted in General

Intruder In Our Woods

Intruder In Our Woods

We got back from Vermont and went for a quick hike in our woods, we are very grateful to Ed Gulley, who built the Gulley Bridge which we use to get across. We are getting to know the woods, and today, we found that a recent intruder had come into the woods and built this rather elaborate metal hunting stand, complete with electrical wiring, metal frame and heavy straps.

They must be using batteries or some other power device.

We permit hunting on our property with permission, we don't permit the construction of permanent metal structures,  and no one asked for permission. We took a good look at it and will go out into the woods with plier and cutters and take it down. We have no issues with hunting and almost all of the hunters we know are ethical nature lovers and environmentalists.

You have to love nature to be a serious hunter. The good ones never come onto anyone's property without permission. We know this is fairly recent because Maria walked this land not too long ago, she came in from the other side of the property. This one is pretty cheeky.

We are loving our woods, we walk there all the time know, we are planning to chop some paths through there so we can still walk in the summer when the ticks and bugs and brush appear.

Posted in General