1 February 2017

Passage To India: Panic And Joy

Panic And Joy; Fabric From India

The second part of my birthday present to India – two beautiful fabrics from that country – came today and Maria hung it up in her studio. I'm not sure what she will do with it, and it isn't my business,  but I thought it might be nice to have something creative from India in her studio as she prepares to leave for Kolkata on February 12th, a week from Sunday.

The reality of this trip is hitting both of us at once, a mixture of panic, shock, excitement and bewilderment. It is getting close, it is somewhat overwhelming. We both are feeling it, even though I am not going. This is the most dramatic event in our lives for a while, at least since our flight from Bedlam Farm and resultant bankruptcy.

Those were pretty exciting, too, but this seems bigger somehow.

Maria is on a bit of a roller-coaster, sometimes anxious, sometimes exhilarated. She wakes up at 3 a.m. going over trip details in her head, I get her to sleep by telling her baby animal stories.

This is to be expected, I keep telling her, but she has this idea that she ought to be Wonder Woman. But even Wonder Woman had emotions and got anxious sometimes.

Traveling to India is not, we are learning, a simple thing. There is much paperwork and preparation – shots, visas, passports, complex and expensive travel arrangements to and from India and within, detailed and constantly-changing itineraries, packing and planning.

We have talked to people, watched videos, read pamphlets and books.

Maria is ready, but she is understandably worried that she will forget something, or lose a document, or put something in the wrong place. She is practicing packing. One of the most unnerving things for me about the trip is that people don't ever speak to people anymore, everything is done online. Even the visa comes in an e-mail you print out. There is always this nagging feeling that you forget something or did something wrong.

We've gone over everything together many times, and when she needs to, Maria calls our wonderful friend Dahn Gandell, who invited her on the trip to India. Dawn is a pastor in Rochester, and a dynamo. She's going on the same trip as Maria, she has been helping the victims of sex trafficking for some years, and she was the one who invited Maria to come. When Maria drifts to panic, she calls Dahn, and Dahn's enthusiasm and excitement are infectious.

Sometimes, you just need to talk to a person.

People do sometimes say the strangest things about going to India. There are the continuous dire warnings about the food and water, almost reflexively, everyone says "don't drink the water," and they talk of the trauma over all the poverty and suffering.  (The socially conscious group organizing the tour always has bottled water available and knows where to get food that is safe to eat.)

The heart of the trip for Maria is teaching the victims of sex trafficking how to make potholders and other forms of art they might sell in order to make a living. Everybody needs a potholder. That, I think, will be the magic for her, but I can't know what she will see or how she will feel about it. It will be wonderful to hear that from her.

I don't belong on this trip, I will be in the right place doing the right thing.

To get her shots, she had to pay $200 to see a doctor who warned her about the 1,000 dangers she might possibly face, and in great and sometimes horrific detail. The other day, a friend broke in on Maria's talking about the trip to warn her to bring toilet paper at all times, everyone in India wiped their bottoms with one hand and ate with the other, she insisted. Be careful which hand  you shake.

I wondered why this very lovely person would tell her a story like that on the eve of her trip.

This toilet habit, of course, is not true throughout India, it has been known to happen in some places at some times. It is really not something Maria needs to  prepare for or be warned about in her nice new hotel in Kolkata, she will be surrounded by people who live in India or travel there often. It would be wonderful if warnings to people were banned for a while, I also get them every day.

(I carelessly mentioned that I fell down yesterday on the ice and couldn't get up, it was so slippery. People warned me to stay indoors and there were all those messages about cleats for the ice, as if I had not heard of them.  I have no intention of staying indoors all winter, that is not why I came up here. If you live on a farm with mud and ice and manure,  you know those trak shoes are useless, they come off in a flash, and once they are caked up, they love to help you fall. I have had some of my best falls on trak shoes. The truth is, if you live on a farm in upstate New York in the winter, you will fall once in awhile. That is life.)

Maria is, of course, bringing toilet paper, the tour organizers and every travel guide suggested that from the first.

Toilet facilities can be sparse in crowded cities.

Several people have e-mailed her saying they admire her bravery for undertaking such a forbidding and dangerous trip, as if she were hiking in the Amazon.They say they couldn't imagine going.

We know lots of people who have been to India a number of times and loved every day of it. It can, they say be overwhelming, the people are wonderful, many are poor, it is a feast of wonderful things and beautiful things and sad and sobering things. It's like having a baby, everyone rolls their eyes and talks about how horrible and exhausting it is, no one seems to recall that it is one of the most precious experiences of life. I was shocked before Emma was born to hear so many people tell me how awful it would be. It was not.

We love to warn other people of danger, rather than remind them of joy, it seems to be in the nature of people.

People have also been extraordinary helpful and generous, it is touching to see these letters with small contributions continue to trickle in for Maria. They are welcome. This trip is expensive.

I am going up and down as well about the trip, no panic since I have nothing complex to keep track of,  but with an awareness that I will miss her deeply, even as I am thrilled for her. We share our lives, we talk to each other all the time and hide nothing from one another. I get melancholic when I am alone sometimes, as I have often been alone in my life. I know how to do it, and I will have a few funky days of brooding. I consider that cleansing. I will appreciate her even more when she is gone.

I just dread saying goodbye, that is the hard part for me.

Technology makes the separation easier -texting, e-mailing and a Facetime or phone call once on most days. It will go quickly, and I love my farm and love my life, blog, photography, writing and animals. I am very lucky to be here, and I am aware of this every day. This trip is a miracle, a life-changer for Maria, and in some ways, for me too.

I will be getting up at 4 a.m., working very hard on my next-next book "Lessons From Bedlam Farm," working on the blog,helping the refugee families, taking my photos, walking the dogs, doing the afternoon farm chores. Cassandra Comety will handle the morning chores so I can get to work early. That will take some getting used to.

I love solitude in many ways, a time to rest and think and stay within myself, important work for any writer. I will do a lot of walking in the woods, including our woods.  A bittersweet thing, this trip, Maria, very literally the light of my life, will be gone for ten days. A big deal, but not that big a deal, if you know what I mean. I am so proud of her.

Kelly says I can have my own table for dinner at the Bog, I can hold court down there. The Mansion residents want me to come to dinner one night (with Red), and I have accepted.

And I cannot wait to see what goes on inside her very creative head when she gets back. Ten days until she goes, ten days until she returns.

Posted in General

Kelly At Ease

Kelly At Ease

We had dinner with Ed and Carol Gulley at the Bog last night, Kelly was running the show, it was quiet. By the time our food came there were only two customers sitting at tables, no one at the bar. This is unusual for the Bog, and I grabbed my camera, I try to get photos of Kelly in her environment, and I loved all of the clutter around her.

Kelly is always graceful, always steady, she seems immune to drama and trouble, she just does her best and her best is always fine. I did like this shot of her at ease though, before she picked up her cloth and wiped down the barn, or brought a check out or served a drink or cleared a table.

Kelly said I was welcome to have dinner at the Bog while Maria was away, perhaps I can have my own table, be a regular, like in the movie Casablanca. I said I might sit on the bar and get drunk, and Kelly promised to stop serving me when it got bad and drive me home if necessary. Party time.

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For Me, It’s About Empathy. Showing Your Soul For Refugees. I Was Made For These Times

Empathy: Mother And Daughter

Do you empathize with immigrant refugees?

I think I was made for these  times. For me, it is not about the left or the right, or the liberal or conservatives, or the progressives versus the alt-right, or the swing left versus the hard right. It's not about anything the pundits yell and scream about.

The great leaders – Lincoln, Roosevelt, even LBJ, Gandhi, Mandela, Churchill, Christ – all possessed great empathy in varying degrees, and were much loved for it. They all saw their legacy and mission as helping the helpless in difficult times.

Roosevelt, a wealthy man,  knew what it meant to be poor and out of work. Perhaps it was his polio.  Johnson, born desperately poor,  understood what it was like to be black and powerless. Churchill stood with the people as bombs rained down on them, he seemed to know what it was to be afraid. He showed people how to be brave. Christ committed himself to uplifting the poor and challenging the corrupt.

These leaders seemed to know what it is to suffer, they were all known for relieving suffering. For many in my generation, that was the point of government, that and keeping us safe.

I don't believe the polarization in the country is really just between the left and the right. I think it is between people who feel empathy and people who see empathy differently or don't feel it much or at all. Or who simply feel it in a different way than I do.

Empathy is a part of my faith and shared experience. It is a defining trait for me, and essential to good writing and creativity.

It is one of the things Maria and I share the most intensely.  Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person's consciousness or frame of reference. It is the capacity to place oneself in another's position or to put oneself in the shoes of another.

In my lifetime, empathy has gone from being a universally admired trait to a politicized symptom, a casualty in the polarization wars. Empathy is now, fairly or not, associated with what is called the "left." The right has largely discarded it as an outdated conceit of the morally bankrupt elite.

The question of empathy hovers all over the refugee controversy wracking the country, another trauma.

I imagine empathy has a great deal to do with personal experience. I was born Jewish, and am close to the immigrant experience, so I feel deeply the fear and trauma of the refugee, the dislocation, terror, loss of wordly goods, the horror of separation,  the terror of a strange new home, cut off from all that is familiar.

Other people in Washington, people I hoped would raise their voices on behalf of these helpless refugees, were silent or said this suffering was a small price to pay for us to feel safer in a turbulent world. Maybe they are right. I hope not.

I saw the other day from watching as much news as I could bear that many people share my feeling, and many people don't. I never thought of empathy as a political issue, or as a political choice, but it now is, I see, yet another casualty of the left-right thing. No feeling or issue can stand on its own any longer, free of labeling.

I see that many people, even the descendants of  immigrants, do not share this identification. They wave off the furor over immigration as just another liberal/media concoction, a political stance to oppose or dismiss. It is just about security, it is not a big deal, it is just temporary, it will protect us and make us safer.  If we all make enough money, everyone will be fine. We don't need so many immigrants, a change is long overdue.

It is said that Donald Trump and many of his supporters lack empathy. When Sen. Charles Schumer held a press conference and teared up about the immigration ban on the steps of the Supreme Court, the President tweeted that "I noticed Chuck Schumer yesterday with fake tears, I'm going to ask him who his acting coach is." I know nothing much about Sen. Schumer but it never occurred to me to doubt his tears, they were brief and mild.

A number of people were struck by President Trump' response to Schumer, whose lost a number of family members during World War II. How would any of us know if the tears were real, why would it matter? "Trump is so lacking in empathy," wrote a commentator on Vox, "that he can't even begin to comprehend the possibility that another person might experience it."

Why couldn't Schumer simply be wrong, why did he have to be false and insincere?  It seemed to me that our President was assuming Schumer would obviously do what he might have done. It seemed that the President could not empathize with Schumer and still disagree with him. Schumer had to be less than human, something other than moral.

Many political leaders and ordinary citizens could simply not grasp  that it might terrifying to the people in families suddenly separated by the ban to think they may never be able to see their loved ones again, even if that turns out not to be true.  They did not see it the way I did. They could not empathize.

The dismissal of human suffering feels to me to be at the heart of the polarization ripping the country apart. An auto worker, asked by a reporters what he thought about the immigration action, said brusquely, "who cares what a bunch of terrorists think?" The lack of any empathy was painful to see.

Empathy and the lack of empathy have become political positions, not emotions or individual concerns. One side claims empathy, the other side scoffs at it as a myopic and expensive indulgence.

It is possible, I suppose, that one side of the country has taken empathy too far, being overly sensitive to too many different things, indifferent the growing social and literal costs. No free person can really love political correctness.

I empathize with the refugee immigrants struggling to get to America, perhaps because I was born Jewish and come from a family of immigrants. Empathizers are losing political power and position, they are getting drubbed in one election cycle after another. Is empathy, like compromise, lost?

This weekend, and after my requests for help in aiding some new refugees here, I saw empathy on the march again, perhaps it is making a comeback. Perhaps it never really went away.

I find the people I am closest to are empathetic, and practice empathy.  For me, empathy is the cornerstone of faith. I don't really care if someone lives on the left or right, the people and leaders I am drawn to intuitively relate to the suffering of others. They would not ridicule a man who cried while arguing his beliefs.

Christ is often said to have cried during his sermons on behalf of the poor and the suffering. The priests in the temple said he was a fraud.

In Luke 6:20 Jesus says "blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh." Why, I wonder would this ethos from one of the greatest leaders in the world not apply to persecuted and dispossessed women and children, yearning to be safe and free? Why is that a false and exaggerated and outdated impulse?

Christ was perhaps the first great historical figure who built his life and movement on empathy. Today, many millions of people denounce empathy in his name and turn away from it.

I don't believe that my empathy is the only true empathy. But empathy is important to me, and when it dies, something precious and irreplaceable goes with it. The poor and the helpless suffer even more, it becomes acceptable, even admirable, to turn away from them.

I am so grateful to the hundreds of people from all over the country who put aside their fears and prejudices and have reached out to the suffering refugees who made it to my area before the doors were slammed shut on their families. They were not content to put dubious security and political issues and rationalizations ahead of suffering. They are able to stand in their shoes, empathy rises above political argument.

People either have it or don't.

My strategy: Don't argue. Do good. My argument is not on Facebook, it is my life. If you empathize with the refugees, help them here, it is simple and inexpensive, It feels good.

Posted in General

Bleak House

Bleak House

Some winter mornings are bleak, but still beautiful. In the morning, in the light snow, under the cold and cloudless sky, Maria walks back from closing the back pasture gate, where we let the animals roam in the daytime. In the morning, we see all kinds of tracks – deer, coyotes, rabbits, raccoons. So much life everywhere around us.

Sometimes, I love the bleak, it makes color all the more meaningful. Every day here is beautiful, just in different ways.

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Stand Up And Show Your Soul, From Maria

Show Your Soul

Maria has finished a striking new hanging piece, she writes about it on her blog, I am touched by it, I don't really how to explain it, she does. I do love it, it is very different.

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