9 July 2017

Skirting Wool

Skirting Wool

Maria and I sat outside by he pasture late this afternoon on this very beautiful summer day and skirted wool – we cleaned the wool of our ten sheep. We are taking it up to the Vermont Knitting Mill in a week or so so it can be cleaned and spun into yard and roving, and sold by Maria on her website and at our Open Houses. Gus joined in.

It is beautiful wool this time, cleaner and softer and more colorful than ever.

Which reminds me, we  have reached some decisions about our Open Houses. The one this October will be held as usual on Columbus Day Weekend, Maria was thinking about a pop-up gallery in town for the art show, but she has decided to keep the art show and attendant events here on the farm this Fall, as usual.

The Open House will be held on Columbus Day weekend, Saturday and Sunday, details to come on Maria's blog. We will not have a June Open House in 2018, we're going to cut down to one Open House a year, in the Fall. Too much stuff going on. Stay tuned.

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Review: The Graybar Hotel. Should Murderers Tell Their Stories?

The Graybar Hotel

On Halloween, 2004, Curtis Dawkins, a graduate of the University of Michigan Fine Arts Fiction Writing program, smoked crack, dressed up as a gangster, shot and killed and man and went on a brutal rampage that took 24 police officers and a SWAT Team to bring to an end. He confessed to the killing, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

This month, Scribner published his first book, "The Graybar Hotel," a short story collection set in a prison. The book has gotten some wonderful reviews and a lot of expected controversy. This is an old and bitter issue, all the way back to Son Of Sam. Many laws have been passed in an attempt to forbid convicted murders from profiting in any way from their crimes through books.

All of these laws have been overturned by the courts.

Dawkins can write. He opens one chapter this way: "A ward at the Michigan Reformatory is a converted gym with a peaked roof and a dozen ceiling fans that whip warm air around the eight-man cubes like hot wind from the wings of desert vultures."

Some distributors have refused to sell the book, many reviewers have refused to review it, many readers won't buy it. The sale of books by killers is a touchy issue in publishing.

As of this writing, the book was no. 6,200 on Amazon.

I should say I have no reservations whatsoever about buying, reading or writing about "The Graybar Hotel", people in prison are still human beings, and writers are writers, whatever they have done and wherever they are. If people are uncomfortable buying the book, they shouldn't and no one should fault them.  Life imprisonment with no hope of freedom is a dreadful and extreme punishment, Dawkins is hardly getting off with a slap on the wrist

As it happens, Dawkins is a  gifted writer. His short story collection is powerful, touching, restrained. Instead of the usual prison writing about violence and rape and gangs and brutality, he focuses instead on the details of prison life, the quirks and habits of the inmates, the feeling of being there.

He makes no real apologia for what he is has done in the book itself, he does say in the acknowledgement (he does not describe the rampage, which prosecutors described as "horrific") that "there's often so much sadness and grief in my heart, it feels like I might explode."

That feeling does show itself again and again in the beautifully crafted stories about life inside this hidden world.

America has the highest per capital prison population of any country on earth, and we almost never get a sense about what day-to-day life inside those walls is really like.  As with most news, we only see the most sensational stories, the riots and brutality. These stories are subtle and surprising.

Dawkins stories are ethereal, almost mystical, like the tale of his cellmate Pepper Pie, who is given a dead man's prison identification number and learns to become invisible and pass through walls, eventually escaping.

It is not possible to separate the author from the stories in the book, although the character is anonymous, it feels like Dawkins is trying to tell his story, trying to show us that he is a human being struggling to survive.

Kenneth Bowman, the murdered victim's younger brother has said he wished that Dawkins, who is now 49, had received the death penalty. "I don't think he should have the right to publish anything. He should be doing nothing in that prison but going through hell for the rest of his life."

It felt to me as if that is precisely what Dawkins is, in fact, doing.

Dawkins said his writing became an escape. "A part of me realized, if I'm going to live through this, I'm going to have to find a purpose." As a reader and admirer of this book, I am glad he chose to write it. I wish him peace and compassion, he surely has a heart, there is nothing fake or contrived about this book.

I honestly can't imagine how the victim's family feels, nor can I imagine how I would feel in their shoes. I can only say that I believe everyone has the right to tell their story and each of us can decide if we wish to read it or not. Fortunately, I am not God, I can't join in the great American lust for judgment.

More than a decade later, Dawkins told the New York Times that he still cannot fathom what drove  him to murder. "I don't want to blame the drugs and say that it wasn't me, because part of it was me, he said in an interview. "I've spent the years afterwards trying to understand the events of that night."

For me, his time in prison was a gift because it  made me think and feel. That is the ultimate measure of any book. Everyone inside of a prison is a victim, as are the people they harmed and sometimes killed. Empathy is not confined to the people we like and admire. Mercy is a measure of humanity, for the victims and for the criminals. It turns out that even monsters and killers can be human.

I looked up as much as I could find about the killing, on the night of the shooting Dawkins, already a drug addict, went to the north side of Kalamazoo, Michigan and smoked crack, which he later told police he had never tried before. At some point, he put on a Halloween costume, a 1920's gangster suit purchased at Goodwill, and a menacing flesh color mask. He grabbed his gun and wandered down the block to an off-campus Halloween party.

Around 1:40 a.m., he approached a group of people in front of a house where there was a party. Someone asked him what the costume was supposed to be, Dawkins pulled out a gun and chased the man down the street. He ended up in front of the house of Thomas Bowman, a house painter who lived near the college campus. Bowman was on the porch, smoking a cigarette. Dawkins asked him for money. When Bowman refused and told him to leave, Dawkins shot him in the chest, and took a hostage inside of the house. It took a SWAT team to get him to surrender.

I really can't judge the man, that was for the court system to do. I can only relate my feelings about the book.

The plain truth is that it is  a wonderful debut, no one can take it away from the writer Along with the tragedy that took an innocent life is Dawkins own  personal tragedy, a lost life inside this lost world he has so brilliantly captured. What a waste, all around, I kept thinking. Except Dawkins has decided not to make his life a total waste, he chose to tell his stories.

I highly recommend "The Graybar Hotel" for those who wish to read it. It is a wonderful read in its own right, and also a testimony to the complexity of being human. We often see the world in black and white ways, but there are many shades and hues to this writer and his life.

I do not with to live in a black and white world. I hope he writes another book.

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Chewing For Love

Chewing For Love

Puppies and young dogs often show affection by "mouthing" one another, it looks a little scary, but it is actually a way of dogs showing affection for one another. Fate and Gus chew for love all the time now, and both are exhausted at the end of the day, and it is very rare to see Fate exhausted.

Fate likes to gnaw on Gus's head a bit, and Gus returns the favor.

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Peggy And Patrick’s Little Library: My Hobby Is Reborn

My Hobby Reborn

Our friend Jay Bridge is building us a littlefreelibrary, one of the more than 50,000 little free libraries – take a free book and return a free book –  now spread across America – mostly rural America.

We thought we would be the first in our town, but we came across another today near the Vermont border, "Peggy and Patrick's Little Free Library" just a few miles away. We expect to be the second, and it will be a special moment for me.

For me, sharing books is an especially gracious thing to do, it fosters community and spreads valuable ideas. It advances my idea of humanity, also Pope Francis's idea – we care for one another, we are responsible for one another, we share what it is good in our lives.

At various points in my young life, I collected comic books, raised tropical fish, stole silver dollars from my parent's dresser, and read the Hardy  Boys. Other than that, I have not had many friends or hobbies. As an adult, I became a book sharer, and that was one of my passions for a long time.

I love to choose books for people and share books with people. It is a great source of pride and satisfaction for me to give friends a book when I see them at lunch or go to their house for dinner. For me, that is better than flowers or wine. I almost never miss.

The library says a lot about Peggy and Patrick, it tells me they are generous and open people. i hope to meet them one day. In their library, they thoughtfully included a list of summer reading. Maria and I read a lot, and we can't wait to put our books in our library, we both love the idea of these books moving out into the community, being shared and read over and over again. This is how books were meant to be.

I think I am good at matching books with people, and I love sharing the books I read and love. As we all know, books have taken a beating recently, they are still around and still strong, but their place in our culture has been diminished greatly. I gave a book to a teenager recently, and he looked at me as if I had handed him a frog from outer space.

He reads all the time, but rarely paper books.

In a compelling sort of way, my hobby is being reborn through the littlefreelibrary.org program. Book sharing is back, and it suits rural communities especially well, we all have lawns and space to stick our libraries into the ground, and we already know and trust one another.

I can't imagine where you would put one in a big city, and in many suburban communities, they are not, I am told, welcome. We expect to have our Little Free Library in a week or so, I'll keep you posted. I love this new moment, it is just the sort of grass roots democracy that can help rbring us all back together again.

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What Dogs Mean To Us. Finding The Reality Of Self

What Dogs Mean To Us

A new dog transforms the nature of a family, he or she upends the rhythms of life, our notions of nurturing, connection  and emotion. A new dog can show us who we really are, can help us see things we could not see or admit.

I've always wondered why it brings so much joy to people to see their dogs play, it brings out so many vivid feelings of peace, satisfaction and even joy. But why should it?

I think about the poor raccoon, who has never learned to manipulate the emotions of people, who has never learned the great art of unconditional love, which has given dogs such a special place in the lives of human beings, and spared so many of them from the very cruel fate so many animals suffer at our greedy and violent hands.

Raccoons do not get human names, sleep in bed, get fed so scrupulously, treated so lovingly.

We humans have already destroyed half of the animal species int he world, we are working on the other half and calling it animal rights, and we spend so much time focusing on the abuse of dogs, but so little on how much love and care is given them, and why.

We know why human beings mistreat animals and one another, we are flawed, incomplete and cruel. Just look at their news.

But why do we love our dogs so much? We can easily live without them.

I think it is because they fill holes in our lives, bring out our better angels, focus us on connection and love. In my case, they have stubbornly taught me how to be a human, given me the magic of feeling, lost to me by life sometimes.

Maria and I both come from broken families, we are in some ways outsiders and outcasts in our own lives, if we had not found one another, I am not sure I would have survived, I cannot speak for her.

Yesterday, the two of us, restless and obsessive people on the move, sat for an hour or two in the bright sun, doing what we never do – being still. We were watching Fate and Gus come to love one another, watched Fate play with Gus so generously and lovingly and with such care, we were shocked.

You are over the top over that dog, Maria said to me. No, I said, not really. You are over the top with Gus, I said to her, just a few minutes later. No, I don't see that at all, she said. There were were, unable to see the reality of our own feelings, a writer and artist, shy of trusting such feeling.

How remarkable,  thought, how much alike we are in this way, how much we reflect and mirror one another.

I don't see it in myself, she doesn't see it in herself, but we see it in the other, and so many of you see it in me and in her. How revealing and fascinating is that?

Gus, a small thing, full of love and energy has touched the nurturing parts of us, the part denied us, the part we lost somehow along the road, and have denied and dismissed in ourselves.

I lost two children to death and disease, Maria gave up the idea of children, she did not trust herself to do it well.

For me, this is a hole that can never be filled. Perhaps that is not completely true.

We both grew up outside the womb and cocoon and safety and community of family, so central to the lives of so many other people.

So here we were, sitting in the shadow of our farmhouse, under our beautiful and regal maple trees, laughing, reaching for our cameras and Iphones as our beloved border collie and this strange little creature, roll around in the grass, playing with one another, reenacting the timeless rituals of dogs and their connections. We were incredulous, riveted, smiling and laughing. We could do this all day, we said. We almost did.

Fate is so much like us, intense, restless, on the move, and her she was transformed right before us. She was having so much fun, even more than chasing sheep. Gus had opened her up, just as she had opened me – us – up.

We were laughing, smiling, we were still, at ease, we could have sat there for hours. Every new dog is a change for me to learn about myself. This morning, Gus came up to curl up next to us in bed, a new ritual in the early morning hours when he comes out of his crate. A small and curious creature, the size of a rabbit at nine weeks old, bringing this exhilaration and peace to two restless people, forcing me to see another truth about myself, one I have always resisted, entering our sometimes frantic lives so easily and completely.

What dogs can mean to us.

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