You can write us at Post Office Box 205, Cambridge, New York, 12816
“Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell
6 May 2016

Saving The Round House Cafe: A Community Awakens From Its Amnesia

By: Jon Katz
Round House: The Awakening Community

Round House: The Awakening Community

In our town, the Round House Cafe and it's campaign to purchase its own building has touched a deep chord, Scott and Lisa Carrino have already raised more than $42,000 from their gofundme project and some thousands more from people in our town and well beyond.

People get it. Our community is theirs, if we can save ours, they can save theirs. A new awakening, I think, a realization that we are close to losing precious things in our towns and villages and cities, especially in rural America, things that once lost, can never be replaced.

The campaign is a great success, but the Carrinos do not yet have enough to get a mortgage on the old bank that is now their much loved cafe. They are moving much closer, but they need more help.

And their campaign has implications for everyone who cares about community and lives in rural America.

As local community decays along with local economy, writes the author Wendell Berry, a vast amnesia has settled over the rural countryside. As the farmers departs with the soil and the rain, so local knowledge and local memory – and local community – move away to the cities or are forgotten under the influence of corporatized sales chatter and box stores and franchises, business, the decline of the family farm, changes in entertainment and education.

The loss of local knowledge and local memory, the loss of local culture, is accepted or written off as one of the cheaper prices to pay for progress, for once unimaginable profits poring upwards to a handful of people and corporations in a tsunami of greed.

If you live in rural America, where journalists no longer go and politicians no longer bother to campaign – there is just not enough money here – you would not be in the least surprised by what's happening in our isolated and disconnected political system.

The politicians and economists have forgotten what people are for, and the people are reminding them that they will not be forgotten or discarded, all across the political spectrum. The students yoked with their staggering debt and troubled future and the  laid off factory workers with no hope of a future at all have finally connected with one another to remind us of the importance of our lost communities and way of life.

They are saying what Willie Loman said a half-century ago. Attention must be paid. People are paying attention to the Round House Cafe. The people in my town are determined to save it, if we lose it,  our gathering place will be a Subway franchise on a busy road.

The abandonment of rural life has been a calamity of historic proportions. Most Americans are now living farm from our cultural and economic sources of faith and community. In our greed and thoughtlessness, we have destroyed the foundations of local life. Everywhere in rural life, the long succession of generations has been broken, we have lost our stories and our sense of belonging, our sense of community, the local institutions that were the backbone of our lives.

This is what the Round House Cafe campaign is about, an awakening, a heroic stand for community in the face of runaway corporate greed, think tank economic theory,  and political betrayal. People come into the cafe every day with cash in their hands and envelopes for Scott and Lisa.

There is no doubt in my mind that they will soon have enough money either to buy the cafe building or find a suitable place nearby. Their landlord has put the building up for sale, for those of you reading about this for the first time. They want to buy their building, and they will have to buy it or move.

In just a few short years, the cafe has become the soul of the town, a reversal of the long exodus of local life from the countryside. If you have helped, thanks, If you wish to help now, thanks. If you can't or choose not to, thanks for considering it. (You can also send a check to the Round House Cafe and Bakery, 1 Washington Street, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.)

Posted in General

Tale Of Two Dogs

By: Jon Katz
Tale Of Two Dogs

Tale Of Two Dogs

Red seems to be healing, I run him a little bit to keep him limber and in shape, but mostly, he accepts his temporary role as watcher, not doer. In the pasture, I put him in a lie down and he watches closely as Fate tears around the pasture, keeping an eye on things in her own way.

Sometimes, she just flies past him, he seems not to notice or see her, he is focused as always on the sheep. No limping today, I hope he is on the mend.

Posted in General

My Muse Reflects On God. “For You, When Love In Your Soul Expands.”

By: Jon Katz
My Muse Reflects On God

My Muse Reflects On God

I work alone, and have worked alone for most of my life. Other than being a lighthouse keeper, there is almost no one who is alone more than a writer. Beyond that, I was even more alone. Two things have altered that somewhat for me, my life with Maria – I am not alone any longer – and technology, which connects me to many people in many different places, often in a very personal way.

But still, when I sit down with my computer and blow a kiss to my muse – she is sniffing the flowers today, Maria bought them for me yesterday and put them on my desk.

"So," I asked the muse as I settled into my chair, lit my scented soy candles – Red asleep under my chair – "do you believe in God"

She said it was a personal question.  She said an impoverished person thinks that God  is an old white man with long white hair, he sits on a wondrous throne of fire that glitters with countless sparks, as the Bible states: "The Ancient-of-Days sits, the hair on his head like clean fleece, his throne – flames of fire."

That, she said, is one of the traps that destroy faith. Awe of God limits our individual imaginations.

And this is the job of the muse, to be a source of creative inspiration, mine has been with me a long time, and I've written 29 books, she is a pro, I trust her and love her. She loves the smell of flowers, that is my fee to her.

Everyone is different, she said, and owns their own faith. There is no one path to God, no matter what the priests and rabbis say.

For you, God is when your awe and imagination are invigorated and ignited, when the love and compassion in you soul expands. You have come far, she said, you have a ways to go.

Then she focused on her flowers, and left me to my work.

Posted in General

Outside The Tent: My Eternal Struggle With Ritual

By: Jon Katz
Struggling With Ritual

Struggling With Ritual

Scott Carrino and I have struck yet another bargain in our years long commitment and struggle to help and teach one another, to barter our skills in exchange for the gifts of the other.  Scott is once again proposing we meet weekly for one hour, he will teach me Tai Chi for 30 minutes, I will teach him about writing.

This has not worked before, we have so much fun talking to one another – I call it bullshitting – that we use up our time. But there is a larger issue for me, and it is a painful and difficult one, one which has shaped much of life and cast me as an outsider in almost every sphere I inhabit, with the exception of my life with Maria and my life with the animals.

Because animals exist free of the very human need for ritual, they accept me and I accept them. There is nothing between us and our relationship, no dogma, rules, prayers,  symbols, prayers, chants or myths.

Last night, I went to sit in on Scott's Tai Chi class – he is a much-loved and respected Tai Chi master, and I was appreciating the movements, the feeling, the gentle patterns. And then, as I knew it would, we got into ritual – the Earth, the Fire, the Earth, the Moon. It wasn't about the movement any more, but what the movement means- and I felt myself shutting down, drifting to very familiar place.

I first remember feeling this in school, wondering, even in the third grade, what subjunctive clauses had to do with writing, why we needed the bells, the principal's announcements, the dread march to gym class, the assemblies in the auditorium, the bullies in the school yard?

I remembered that this drove me out of Judaism when I was very young, the alien language, the symbolism inherent in every piece of furniture, window, curtain and door. A door was never a door, it was a symbol of fifteen other things that I couldn't remember or grasp. If God existed at all, it was in the scrolls, windows, difficult texts.

Part of this is that I have learning disabilities, I've known this for years, my teachers have also. It is very hard for me to learn things other people learn easily. I just have never chosen to get treated or diagnosed, I don't care for the labels with put on one another. Another part of my lifelong struggle with ritual is my long conflict with my parents, who tried with ferocious determination to force their rituals on me, something I battled and rejected at every turn.

Defying them made me strong, angry, and determined.

It is a profound thing in our culture to reject ritual, since so many people cherish ritual and cannot live without it, from  movies and Darth Vader to the NFL to organized religion, the Mardi Gras, elaborate weddings and funerals, summer baseball, turkey carvings at Thanksgiving, family dinners at Christmas.

A ritual is a ceremony or action performed in a customary way, from Spaghetti dinner on Saturdays to Church on Sunday mornings to joining the "left" or the "right" to…well, to Tai Chi and its many symbols and meanings and movements. Scott always tells me that there is no right or wrong in Tai Chi, it is about getting easier all the time. Why, I wonder, is everything I do, wrong, from the way my fingers point to the way my elbows lift to the space between my feet?

This is my lifelong quarrel with religion, there is always so much ritual between me and God that I can never find him or her, it's like long division for me, I get trapped in the quagmire of understanding, easy for some people, impossible for me. An English teacher once suggested I had a learning disability, but she said I wrote so well it didn't matter. So it hasn't.

But in this way, I often see the world going one way and me going the other. I left my Tai Chi class yesterday intrigued but also somewhat hopeless. I live a solitary life in many ways, I work alone. Maria has changed so much of that, but I am still me. This is the road I have traveled many times before, and I have never been able to stay on it.

You admire Jesus Christ so much, one woman messaged me, why don't you accept him as your God?

Because, I told her, God is the ultimate ritual, and whenever you approach God, there is endless ritual in between, rigid ideology, dogma, rules and symbols. The idea of God was created at a time when ritual was essential to survival, to trying to understand a hostile world.

I have a deep respect for other people's rituals, but this is impassable for me. I became a Quaker in part for this reason, little ritual, it seemed there was no ritual, nothing between me and my idea of God. That of course, was not really true. I love the Quakers, and remain one, but I can't handle their gatherings and committees and process any longer, it is filled with the complex ritual of simplicity. It is not simple to be a Quaker.

I sometimes think politics is the biggest ritual of all, another reason I am never comfortable with it.

I told Scott all of this, and he told me about his own problems with writing. I've seen those, Scott uses writing to connect with the most painful parts of his life, and while that is often a great thing, it can be a block. We have our work cut out for us. Scott says we should work on Tai Chi privately, no class for me. I see why he decided that, he is no fool. I'm going to teach him writing one-on-one also.

I tried to explain all of this to Maria on our walk in the woods this morning, but she was impatient with it. Some people need ritual, she said, some people don't. If you don't like it, don't do it. I couldn't really talk about it with her, something that is rare.

I didn't really know what to say, except it is not that simple for me. Living outside of the tent is my destiny, but sometimes it is frustrating, painful and lonely. I can't help but feel I am damaged in some way, to be so determinedly on one path, when almost everyone else is on another. I tend not to think that people who think differently than me are stupid, I usually end up thinking something is wrong with me.

Ritual is, say archeologists and anthropologists and shrinks, a universal feature of human social existence. No society has ever existed without, it is impossible to imagine our current society without ritual.  Human beings seem to need ritual for comfort and to have a sense of the world.

Ritual is a universal experience, but it is also so complex and varied that it reflects the diversity of the human experience as well. Almost everyone's ritual experiences are different.

Perhaps rejecting ritual is a ritual all of its own, there have always been misfits and lunatics and oddballs on the fringes of society. Maybe that is my ritual. I am getting older, time to change when I must and learn when I can, and  accept myself for who I am.

Next week, Scott and I resume our curious human experiment, to see if either of us can take the other to place we want to go but don't know how to get to. We have been at this for a few years now, I am beginning to think we have created a ritual of friendship unique to both of us.

Posted in General
5 May 2016

The Path To Enlightenment: Learning To Live With Conflict

By: Jon Katz
Learning From Conflict

Learning From Conflict

"Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in."  – Shannon Adler.

I have been very slow to learn some elemental lessons about conflict.

First, it will find me (and you) in our culture wherever I go, whatever I do.

Conflict is ubiquitous, it is everywhere, in our media, our politics, our inboxes, our Facebook replies, it is  literally hard-wired into the consciousness of modern men and women, it comes through our devices, through the air, in the news, on our phones, it swirls and swirls like millions of little tornadoes around our stressed and fragmented world.

Secondly, it does not matter if you are a good and noble person, or a troubled and wicked one, conflict is an equal opportunity plague, sooner or later it comes to everyone.

Facebook and Twitter, e-mail and texts are incubators of conflict, these messages are free and lightning-fast super-highways. In our world, there is no penalty for conflict. It is free and easy and without real consequence. It has never been easier to fight or hate.

We live in the land of unexplained emotions, unfinished thoughts, and missed signals, all the enablers of conflict. I have known a lot of conflict in my life. I want to leave the world knowing better ways to deal with it.

I have had a considerable amount of conflict in my life this past year, I want to learn from it and grow beyond it.

I had an important lesson a few months ago with one of my writing students, a gifted woman I felt close to and admired. We made an appointment to have breakfast to talk about a writing project she had launched, my morning was chaotic for many reasons, one crisis after another, and the meeting slipped my mind.

She didn't try to contact me, or find me. She didn't care to wait.

A friend in the cafe where we were meeting texted me and told me that my student was furious, she stormed out of the restaurant, she seemed hurt and  angry. Even embarrassed.  I was shocked, distraction and blown lunches are a staple of my life, on both ends, we all live in a frenzied and distracted world. And I have not learned to say no, I accept too much and love all of it.

(Just last week, a close friend I was meeting for lunch failed to show, and when I called  him, he said it had just slipped his mind, he was lost in a painting he was creating. I laughed. How often, I said, that has happened to me, lost in writing something, utterly unaware of the time or day. My friends understand this, I understand them. We are the children of distraction. It never occurred to me to get angry, mistakes are a part of life.)

I stopped and thought about this angry student. Of course, I started to get angry. I was sorry I forgot the lunch, my friends know to  remind me of dates, as I remind them. But forgetting something is not a crime, and if so, I would be in jail forever. She should have called me or texted me, she had created a minor scene in the cafe. I got angry, I felt she did not appreciate me, how busy I am, how much time I had given her, the complexities of my life. I would never have behaved that way towards a teacher I respected.

I sent her a tense e-mail saying I was sorry, but also upset at what seemed an extreme over-reaction.

I broke my own rule about e-mails – never write or send one in anger. I told her we needed to deal with this if she wished to remain a student of mine, and I went to bed stewing. In the middle of the night, I got a testy e-mail back, she said she was, in fact, angry and hurt. She said it was my responsibility to keep my appointments, and she was disappointed in me.

I stopped, sat up in bed, thought this through. How did I wish to deal with this? I loved this student, she is gifted and hard-working and learning a great deal. She has a beautiful novel in her that wants to come out, and I have greatly enjoyed working with her – she is what teaching is all about.

Did I really want to press this issue, to expand this conflict, or jump in?  I started recounting the speeches I would give to her. But then I caught myself. That would accomplish nothing.

Something must be wrong, something I had missed, or didn't know. This was not, perhaps, about me, the upset suggested something else was going on.

I dug out some notes I had written about conflict, my four points:

  1. Wait a day before writing in anger or resentment. Just wait, angry e-mails or texts or messages never work.
  2. Do not ever try to resolve conflicts by e-mail, text or Facebook.
  3. At all costs, avoid he-said, she-said litanies. You did this, I did that, you said this, I said that. They never work, they are the foundation of pointless and failed communications. They are breeders of conflict.
  4. See it through her eyes. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, and pretend you are making their argument. Even if you know them to be wrong, try to see it through their prism, not yours.
  5. Apologize for causing hurt and confusion, even if you didn't mean to (the hard part.)

I should, of course, have been there for lunch. It was important for her, and I will be careful to write appointments down and make sure I see them in the future. I told her I was sorry. I do understand how she felt.

I wrote my student back. I'm concerned about you, I said, I'm sorry, but something is off and I don't understand what happened. I don't wish to discuss this via e-mail or online. I'd like to move past this, but to do that, we have to talk and I need to understand what is really happening. If this is really about my forgetting lunch, then we are in trouble, and I'm not sure we can work together.

I hesitated about the last seven words but decided that they were in important. There would be unfortunate consequences if we couldn't work it out, I wanted her to think about that, as I had. This was  not worth a lot of conflict. This might push her into thinking past the incident, as I was trying to do, and seeing that my feelings were important also.  Conflict by its nature requires more than one person. It was a gamble.

She called the next afternoon, as I asked. Both of us had cooled down, were calmer. I was grateful we didn't talk the night before.

"Thanks for calling," I said, "can you tell me what this is really about, because I don't think it's about lunch. I am an organizational mess, and if we are to work together for any length of time, this will happen more than once.  People like me make mistakes all the time. I need to understand why it bothered you so much if we are to get past this. Which I am eager to do."

She paused, then said: "I had a bad day, abandonment is an old issue for me, it is a trigger. A bunch of things were going on in my life and when you didn't appear, I took it to be that you didn't care about me or my work. I know that you do. I love working with you, and I'm sorry. It was just a bad day, a bad moment."

That was all I needed to hear, all I wanted to know. Your perspective on life depends on the cage you were held captive in.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself into the shoes of others.

I thanked her for being honest with me, I said, "we're all done, it's fine, let's forget about it. I understand now, and I will be more sensitive about it and perhaps you can also understand the nature of my life, I am working with a score of students right now, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed with that, the farm, my books and my blog. We'll work together to make sure I'm aware of our meetings. We both are carrying a lot and I know what I needed to know. I'm fine with us working together, and happy you are in my class, when I hang up the phone it will be over and done. I won't bring it up again. Let's get to work."

I could see she was relieved and she was frightened by this conflict, it was really just out of insecurity and her own painful past. I didn't need to give any speeches, or rehash any words. Let it go, the slogan of conflict avoidance.

It was important for me, I am learning that conflict in our world is everywhere, we are an unhappy people right now, under pressure and feeling abandoned and victimized.  A teacher has a special responsibility to listen and learn. I want to understand how to deal with conflict, not succumb to it or be drawn into it. Not an easy thing in our world, conflict is a shadow, it is always nearby.

I like my four steps. At the core, most of us are needy human beings who need to know we are cared for and thought of. I think most of us are in need of that. Social media is a disastrous way to resolve or understand conflict. Making contact human-to-human is very often an antidote to conflict, as it was for me and my student. You are dealing with a human, not a grievance. The disconnection in our world, the stunning and massive turn away from personal contact and into remote messaging is, I believe, a major cause of conflict. It  seems unhealthy to me.

And in this case, there were no losers or victims.  She has a better understanding of the realities of our world, and the need to not personalize or demonize normal human behavior. I am learning ways to handle conflict, avoid pain and wounding, and learn  from each experience.

At the end, we are all human beings, we all have reason, a conscience, we all seek community and connection as much or more than anything else in our lives, no matter how many e-mails or text messages we get. We took a conflict and turned it into an affirmation of what it means to be human.



Posted in General