4 August 2017

We Are All Refugees. Listen To The Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir

Mawulidi Diodone Majaliwa: The Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir

I hope it's not presumptuous to think of Gail Suderman as a friend. But I do.

It's an odd thing to say. Gail lives thousands of miles away, I have never met her or spoken with her, and the odds are, I will never see her or speak to her. She has been reading my blog for years, as well as my books, sharing my comments with other people. Once in a while, she posts a comment or sends me a message, her name is familiar to me, and in a positive way.

She is the Artistic Director of the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir in Western Canada, as far away as one can get from Bedlam Farm and still be on this continent. My most quoted comment by her, she says, is "my life is not an argument." That is also one of my favorite comments, as many of you know.

I spent an hour listening to this wonderful choir today, there is a remarkable video posted of them singing on YouTube. To listen to this music is to be transported, perhaps even reborn a bit, it lifted my spirits up into the sky and left me speechless and near  tears.

What an extraordinary honor to be mentioned in connection with this choir of angels. It choked me up. And on the tape, I got to meet Gail Suderman, who is much more famous than I am, and is the guiding spirit behind this much-loved choir. How remarkable that she is out there drawing inspiration from the Army Of Good. I think I might need to move out there.

As I listened to the music, I found myself praying that one day I will get to Vancouver and hear them sing. What a singular blessing that would be. Listening to this music, I thought, we are all refugees, bound together on the same trip.

My quote about arguing is controversial.  it is not a view that is widely held, surely not on social media. It upsets more people than any other comment I have made, arguing other people's ideas and belief and hating them for disagreeing has almost become our national religion in America, when it is the very antithesis of true faith.

It is something of a lonely belief.  If you listen to the Good Noise Choir, you may feel, as I did, what a sacrament really is, and how creative  spiritual can be. The joy in their hearts come out in their art.

I thank Gail Suderman for grasping and sharing that idea, but listening to her music, I see that she is living it. I mean, really, what have all of these arguments that surround us done a single thing for the world?

A few days ago, Dorothy Siebert, a member of the Good Noise Vancouver Church messaged me to say the Army Of Good, which has graced many lives with its generosity and support here in recent months, was mentioned at a gospel concert she attended, one conducted by Gail Suderman.

The world can be a small and glorious place.

This philosophy about arguing changed and shaped my life this year, as it inspired me do good  rather than argue about good, and behold, good is being done.

Gail sent me a beautiful message this morning, and I thought I should share some of it with you, I am a messenger for this Army, after all, you  do the marching.

"I mentioned your “Army of Good” at my choir’s concerts in June as a preface to a song we sang. The choir’s name is “Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir” (Vancouver, British Columbia).  I wanted to encourage the audience: when issues in this world seem so huge, so insurmountable at times, what is it that we can do each day to make a difference and not get caught up in the things that divide us. And I thought of the Army of Good, your Army of Good, and told the audience a bit about the work you were doing with the refugee children and the seniors at The Mansion, all being supported by small donations from many people who wanted to belong to that wonderful Army"

I think Gail said it better than I have said it, and she said it well. Our choice is to argue and be drawn to what divides, when what we can best do each day to make a difference in the world is not get caught up in argument or the things that divide us. I am not really going to try to change the world, simply touch the lives of people in ways that may seem small, but to them, are quite large.

In the Kabbalah, God contemplated the good deeds of the righteous, and drew forth light from within himself and delighted himself with holy people. In this bliss the power to create – the joyous songs of the Good Noise Gospel Choir – was born.

I can't comprehend the whole world or succumb to the overwhelming weight of the world's troubles. I can get help get Madeline an air conditioner and send the RISSE kids to see "Spiderman" this Saturday and help Devota pay off that misleading loan or get Mawulidi some carving tools so he can follow his bliss once more.

We are on to something. Look low, not high. Think small, not big. For the few, not the many.

I can't change the world, but I can do good  rather than argue about what good is. We can lighten up some of the dark corners and fill in some of the  holes in people's lives. It's not everything. It's enough.

Gail Suderman, thanks for bringing your heart and music into my life. I think we need to meet and I promised myself today that I will see you direct your wonderful choir one day.

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Three Working Dogs Hold The Sheep In Place. You Won’t See This In Ireland.

Hold The Sheep

Well,  you will probably never see this on those sylvan trips to the British Isles or on those You Tube videos, but here at Bedlam Farm, we've assembled our own appropriately unorthodox line-up of herding and working dogs, who help us keep the sheep in line.

One, Red, is disciplined and classically trained, he holds the sheep in place with his very fierce gaze and wolf-like demeanor. His companion, Fate, is from Wales, and has enormous herding instincts but no  desire to push the sheep around, they ignore her or chase her off. Still, she is game, she sits with Red and helps to hold the line, she is quite brave around him.

We like to think of Fate as the Ferdinand of sheep, she doesn't like to make them do things they don't wish to do.

Then there is Gus, who is new to this sheep-herding stuff and has his own very unconventional way of working.  He is not much bigger than a rabbit, and does not fool himself into thinking he can make a flock of sheep move or run. He faithfully takes up position behind the other two dogs and glowers at the sheep excitedly, sometimes.

Sometimes  he just looks around, he loves to be with the other dogs, but stays well out of the fray. Sometimes he will bark at the sheep with great purpose, but no effect.

I sometimes wonder what this all looks like from the point of view of the sheep (what has this lunatic done now?), so this morning I got behind them and lowered myself to their level and took some photos.

In its own way, this lineup is pretty impressive. Nobody is challenging them, the sheep stay right where they are supposed to stay. When we are done with our chores, Gus is the first one out the door, followed by Fate, and then Red. I am grateful for Red.

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Pre-Order “Tales From The Mansion” From Battenkill Books

"Pre-Order Tales From The Mansion"

You can now pre-order "Tales From The Mansion," a compilation of 15 surprising, funny and poignant tales from the edge of life.

The stories came out of a story workshop I taught at the Mansion Assisted Care Facility in Cambridge, N.Y. They were first read at the Mansion itself, and then compiled by me, Activities Director Julie Smith and Abrah Griggs, the artist and illustrator who has organized them into a book.

The book is 38 pages long and has about a dozen of my photographs. Robert, the winner of the short story contest, is the cover boy. His story is in the book. It will be sold exclusively through Battenkill Books.

The stories vary wildly, as do the Mansion residents themselves. Some will take your breath away, some are short and two the point, some are funny and coy. All of them speak to people at a certain point in life, people who often feel abandoned and left behind by a society that keeps them alive at great cost and profit but doesn't want to see them or know them.

In my story workshop, I told them their stories are important, and everyone in the room came through.

We are planning a first printing from CreateSpace, an online self-publishing website,  of 200 copies.

Half will go to the Mansion, the residents and their families will each get a free copy. The rest will be sold for $10 plus shipping at Battenkill, my local bookstore. They take Paypal and major credit cards and you can easily order the book online here or call the store at 518 677-2515. They ship anywhere in the world.

I'll be happy to sign the book if anyone wishes me too. Any profits will go to the Mansion to help fund outings for the residents. The Mansion pays for the outings, I pay for the ice cream.

We are grateful to Connie Brooks of Battenkill for taking this on. I am lucky to live in a small town with one of the best independent bookstores anywhere. If we should sell out, we will order up a second printing.

The book is being prepared with funds – about $$300-400 I estimate – that were donated to Mansion work by readers of my blog, who are increasingly coming to be known as the Army Of Good. I need to also thank Maria, for her support, proof-reading and constant encouragement to me, and to the residents.

The bookstore received more than 50 orders yesterday, I don't imagine the rest will be available for long. This is an important project for me, and I  hope, for the Mansion residents. One told me her stories are all she has left of her life. I am proud to be sharing one in "Tales Of The Mansion."  And I thank you once again, as I do almost daily, for your empathy, trust and generosity. You can pre-order the book here.

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Helping Devota. Life In America. $4,000 And Counting, Almost Halfway.

Devota Nyiraneza, cleaning floors at the Albany Medical Center

I am seeking to raise $10,000 to help a good and loving person, a new citizen of America, a refugee from horror,  pay back a mistaken loan that is crippling her son's education and pressuring her own life in many ways. We have raised more than $4,000 so far, nearly half.

It's hard for me to get it out my head when I see Devota – I met with her again yesterday afternoon at RISSE in Albany. Under the new laws proposed by our government, she would not be eligible to come to  America today.

She did not speak English when she came here after walking nearly 3,000 miles across Africa with  her daughter on her back to escape the Rwandan genocide. And she had no money or any other possessions.

She is an American citizen now, but since she had no resources or measurable skills when she finally got to a refugee camp in 1995, she would no longer qualify for admission to the United States.

Yesterday, she showed me a photograph taken of her walking barefoot out of Rwanda with tens of thousands of fellow refugees and victims. Devota said it was a death march, soldiers and militiamen lined the route of the march, gunning down thousands of innocent people in the slaughter, which took 800,000 lives.

Eight of the people she walked with were killed by poison darts fired by guards and farmers when they foraged for food on farms along their route. They hid in forests during the day, foraged for food at night.

She told me yesterday that she never understood what happiness was until she came to America. She said had never been happy a single day in  her life.

It took Devota a year to walk to safety with no spare clothes shelter, food or shoes. She carried her young daughter – then three months old – all of the way.  She got her to the camp alive, tens of thousands of children were abandoned by their parents during this time and left to die on the roads of exposure and starvation.

On her journey walking and in the camps, Devota was raped four times. She was threatened with death each time if she did not submit. The assaults resulted in four children, all of whom she chose to keep and adopt and who she brought to America and is raising by herself. She intends to get every one of them through college.

One of her children, her oldest son,  was recently accepted at Buffalo State University, Devota, confused by the loan system (it happens to refugees and many young Americans all of the time) applied for what she thought was a financial aid package but was actually a $10,000 loan.

She intends to pay back every pay.

Her payments – $125 a month – forced her  moved to a smaller apartment with her children, and her son, who is studying to be an engineer,  left school for a cheaper community college and is working to help repay his own loan.

Devota is working day and night at two jobs, seven days a week – one with disabled people at Catholic Charities, and every night, as a house cleaner at the Albany Medical Center. I asked for a photo of her at work, and she sent me the one above.

Yesterday, I asked her if she needed any of the money we had raised now – my plan is to wait and see if we could raise the entire $10,000. She smiled and said nothing, and I was reminded again that the refugees – especially those from Africa and parts of Asia – will never ask for money, they believe it is unseemly and rude.

They will sometimes accept it if is simply given to them, and if the need is great.

So I wrote her a check for $1,000 and agreed to meet her again next week in Albany, where she lives and works.

She is, I am told, a hard worker and a devoted mother. She plans to get herself through college as well, once her children finish their education. This is desperately important to her, an old refugee and immigrant story, the heart of the American experience.

So I wrote out a check for $1,000 and handed it to her. Brother Francis, the director of RISSE, (the refugee and immigrant center based in Albany) and the man who introduced me to Devota, said I could not possibly imagine the difference that $1,000 would mean to Devota and her family now.

I could see it in her face, I think. She has a beautiful smile.

In Rwanda, she said, neither she nor her children could ever have gone to school. For all of her struggles, she sees our country as a land of opportunity and hope. She never talks about her long march across Africa, and when asked, says as little as possible. When asked about the political struggles raging around immigration, she only smiles and says: "When the elephants fight, the grasses below suffer."

She told me yesterday "I don't want to keep anger inside of me, all that emotion will eat me up."

If you wish to donate to help pay Devota's loan, you can send a check to me, Jon Katz, P.O.  Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y. 12816, or donate through Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com.  Please note it is for "Devota." This morning, I received $870 dollars in small donations in my post office bos, they add up and will help change a life.

I will keep updating this project as it evolves, I will see her again next week, and she has invited me to her apartment for dinner.



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Meet Kevin At The Mansion: He Brings Good Things To Life

He Brings Good Things To Life

We have kept Kevin very busy this week, he is the Maintenance Supervisor at the Mansion, he has spent a lot of time installing portable room air conditioners over the last couple of weeks –  into the Mansion Activity Room, and into Connie and Art and Madeline's rooms. Two more are coming next week – for Bill and Sylvie.

I am giving the air conditioners to the Mansion rather than the residents, that way they can be used again and again over time.

I am grateful to Kevin for many reasons. He is competent, his installations are quick and efficient. He has a great and cheerful demeanor about him, and he is gentle and courteous to the residents, he knows them all by name and is very sensitive to their needs.

Then, there is also the fact that I've wrecked my back twice trying to carry these things, they are heavy as lead.

Mara and I get them into my car, then we drive to the Mansion entrance, Kevin take sit from there.

I am always happy to see Kevin and his rolling cart, and if he minds any of this additional work, you would never know it.

Whenever we decide to install a room air conditioner, I talk to Kevin about it, and if necessary, we go and look at the room. The air conditioners do not in any way strain the Mansion's power or electrical system, and are not a strain on the Mansion financially.

Several rooms upstairs cannot be cooled by air conditioners for various reasons, and Kevin and I have talked about different kinds of fans than might be helpful up there.

It's always good for me to remember these things we do greatly affect many people – not just the residents, but Kevin and his crew, the staffers and aides and administrators at the Mansion, and most of all the residents themselves. Kevin makes our good deeds become reality, and I  thank him for that.

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