24 February 2017

When Hearts Turn To Stone: These Are Your Mini-Bags. Mercy IS Justice.

By: Jon Katz

Mini-Bags: Erasto and Lily

My refugee donation today is a humble bath mat for $12.99.

Lily and Erasto, an immigrant and a refugee, came to Albany, N.Y. several years ago, worked, went to school and became social workers. They wanted to thank you for your generosity and compassion for the newly-arrived refugees. They wanted you to see the mini welcome bags they helped distribute to refugee children entering the Albany school system.

Last week, the Albany City School District held a week-long Newcomer Academy for refugee students during the winter break. The purpose was to help them become familiar with school procedures, teachers and other activities and opportunities.

"Thanks to your Army of Good," wrote one of the refugee volunteers, "we were able to distribute mini-bags of shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, ball, jump rope, and colored pencils." Larger welcome bags for refugee children will be distributed in a few weeks, thanks also to your compassion and generosity.

When some hearts turn to stone, the Army Of Good turns to love and empathy. Time to melt some hardening hearts. These people are no threat to you and your family or community. By all accounts, they help invigorate and refresh America.

The refugees coming to our area came here legally, were thoroughly investigated, are eager to work, pay taxes and contribute to our society. They are, to me, part of the life blood and very soul of America, when we slam the doors shut on them, we slam them on us.

We starve our spirits, we close ourselves off to the best of the American experience, a beautiful and flowing stream of safety and opportunity. These donations are who we are.

Abraham Lincoln said that he came to believe that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. He said to ease another's heartache is to forget one's down. My own idea is to fight cruelty with compassion, I believe compassion is more powerful.

You are making an enormous difference in the lives of the newly-arriving refugees when you send donations through the Amazon Gift Page set up by the U.S. Committee On Refugees And Immigration. They have suffered greatly, have lost everything and need everything.

The gifts have been chosen to address their needs, they are inexpensive and essential. You choose your gift, click on the USCRI address mail button and that's it. Takes a second and pennies to change a life and send a message. Our doors and hearts are open to the weary and oppressed, you are welcome here.

The donations are my daily prayer, today I'm purchasing some bath mats. This is my opportunity to do a bit of good every day.

The refugees are still arriving, and the need is great. They need the basic essentials of life – socks, pots, silverware, school supplies, blankets.

You can visit the gift page here. I thank Eraso and Lily for standing up and showing you what you have done.

Posted in General

Sari’s And Farm Chores. Shoveling Manure In A Sari?

By: Jon Katz

Sari's And Farm Chores

Maria told me she is in love with her sari, she says she feels like a Queen in it and it feels as she has been waiting her whole life to wear one. I said maybe she could wear it here, or around the farm. She seemed surprised at that idea, but I pointed out that it wasn't like she dressed like everybody else in town, a sari would not surprise anyone here.

"It just seems like me," she said. "You bet," I replied.

I am thinking, I said, of a photo of you shoveling manure in your sari.  You do it in your wedding dress all the time, why not in a sari? I am sure she will wear it in her studio sometime, it will help her feel close to India and her experience there, and to the women who are making the potholders she taught them how to make.

I like the idea of that photo, I am sure I will get the chance to take it. If she loves it that much, she will wear it.

Posted in General

Homecoming: On Maria’s Balcony. Feels Like My Heart Is Coming Home

By: Jon Katz

On Maria's Balcony

Wherever she is, Maria seems to find animals and animals seem to find her. She got up the other morning, opened the curtains and there was a  monkey with her baby sitting comfortably out on the railing. Today is Maria's last day in India, her quite remarkable journey is nearing an end. Tomorrow morning, she begins a grueling three day journey, several long flights, several different countries.

She should land in America sometime Sunday morning, our time, Monday in India time. She will, I imagine, be exhausted, both emotionally and physically. I am thinking she will need rest and some space to readjust, I've gotten her favorite foods, ordered some flowers.

I imagine she will need to digest this trip, it was intense every minute in a number ways, and wonderful in many others. I think it was a coming of age for her, I think it will be transformative.

My Creative Fellowship did not turn out as planned. Too many surprises, storms, computer crashes, distractions, chores and Maria's trip was much in my head. I didn't quite grasp how distracting that would be. It is not so easy to write well when a big chunk of your soul is suddenly gone.

At the same time, I suspect she will be very happy to come home – to the donkeys, the farm, and also, to me. We belong together, I have certainly learned that in the past two weeks.

She will be working this trip out for a long time, I think it will show up in her work and in her life, this, in a sense, is her calling, fusing her art and using it for doing good, especially for women. The women in India got right to her heart, they have not seen the last of each other. She made some powerful friendships with some amazing women. You are one of them, I said on the phone. She seemed startled.

This will open a lot of doors for her, in her mind, in her art.

I witnessed first hand how hard she had to work to get to India, how many obstacles to overcome, most all of them now, how many fears she had to work through and set aside, how much she had to learn. She was not a world traveler,  has mostly and until recently stayed within her comfort zone. That has just greatly expanded.

Maria  saw some awful and wrenching things and explored the limits of compassion and of what it is possible to do in a world with so much suffering. She made some lifelong connections and this work in India will now, I think, be a permanent part of her life.

If anything, I feel closer to her than ever before, and have even more respect and admiration for her. I know well what it took to get from there to here, and it is just the beginning of this transformation for her. From beginning to end, this was not an easy journey. She did so well. She is just getting started. Sometimes, I have learned, late starts are the best starts.

Even in India, we always found a way to talk, through texts, photos, phone calls. Just got the AT&T bill. Love is not cheap. She got me a present and I can't wait to see what it is. She is bringing  back lots of fabrics and I can't wait to see those either. What a treat to see how all of this begins showing up in her work.

I told her she has been living a big and exciting life these last two weeks and is returning to a small farm in a small town. It will take some adjusting. Several people in town have asked her if she will consider giving a talk about her trip. I hope she does.

Tomorrow, I'll take the salmon filets out of the freezer and thaw them out. I'm make sure the house is neat. I feel like one of the Captain's wives in Nantucket, peering out over the ocean to see their husbands return from the sea. If feels like my heart is coming home.

This time, she won't be traveling in a blizzard.

Posted in General
23 February 2017

Talking About Mental Illness: “You Get To Recover All The Time.”

By: Jon Katz

The Joy Of Recovery: Minnie In The Barn

I wrote last week about my experience with mental illness, and I thank the many people who wrote me in response to it, and thanked me for writing. I want to write about it again today, in a slightly different way. I want to write about the many fringe benefits of being mentally ill, including the joy of recovering, which is a constant and very meaningful part of suffering from this disease.

Of all of the things I learned about mental illness, and of all of the things I did to recover and learn to live with this chronic and common disease, the most important thing I learned was to come out of hiding and speak about it. For me, that was the path to healing. I not only talked about it, I started a blog in response to it. Come out, come out. The worst part of mental illness is the awful and lonely experience of hiding, of feeling ashamed and helpless.

The best thing about being mentally ill is that you get to recover again and again, and in so doing, you learn so much about yourself and about other people. The surprise about the mentally ill, say therapists and psychologists, is that they are not the crazy and angry people you keep hearing about, they tend to be gentle and compassionate.

When I finally faced up to the degree of my illness, after decades of struggling to hide it and avoid from and frighten and disturb the people close to me, I realized that there was no reason to be lonely. According to social scientists, 42.5 million Americans, about 18.2 per cent of the population, suffer from mental illness at some point every year.

If we voted, we could change the world.

For me, the wonder of mental illness is the constant experience of  recovery. Sunday, I slipped into a dark place, a funk, the Black Dog came to sit with me, as they like to say. By Tuesday, I was fine, blogging, writing, taking photos, working on my book.

How did this happen?

The truth is, I have recovered a million times in my life. My whole life is a recovery. It is almost second nature to me, and that is something of a miracle. And I have had a lot of help, and it always helped. Now, I can help myself.

Mental illness can be devastating and incurable. Some people never recover. The doctors say the overwhelming majority do.

Once I understand what had happened to me in my life, and what I suffered from, then I began to understand myself in ways I never imagined. Once I stopped hiding from the fact that I suffered from chronic anxiety disorder and some depression, I began to learn how to be honest, more authentic. I began with small recoveries, a day at a time, an hour at a time. And they grew and grew.

My recoveries grow longer all the time, sometimes months, even years now.

There were many gifts. I had to learn who I was and what I was about. I had no choice. Most illnesses don't require that of people.

This understanding, this work and openness led directly to my writing more authentically, more intuitively, and to taking photos almost accidentally that were full of emotion.  Because I was full of emotion, and I was learning to love it rather than hate it and fear it.

The mentally ill have much to write about and learn, they are very open to themselves, they have to experiment and change, and thus they grow stronger and more  honest and knowing.

Mental illness opened me up and demanded that I work hard to regain my life. Almost immediately, I found love, it was right across the street. My illness gave me that gift and the ability to connect with someone in a healthy and powerful way.

Mental illness  – depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder is a great teacher. We learn how to be empathetic, to stand in another's shoes. We know how to read people and strategize. We learn to be around healthy people, we learn that you cannot have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person. Sooner or later, it must fail.

Because of my illness, I learned to deal with the anxiety and anger of the outside world, I have lived with it inside and outside of myself my whole life.

Politics and Facebook and President Trump are familiar to me, in all kinds of different ways, I have learned how to ground myself and calm myself and move in a positive way, and I have  dealt with narcissistic and angry people all of my life, they are as familiar to me as my own hands. I have learned not to argue, but to do. I have gained great confidence in my ability to navigate the world, because I could take nothing about myself for granted.

When I realized I was slipping on Sunday – Maria was away for a week – I knew what to do. First, I wrote about it. Once you come out and admit  you are crazy, then you have nothing to lose, nothing to hide, you liberated, free from hiding and shame and fear.  Being authentic is a glorious feeling.

I get the chance to do that again and again, it moves me forward every time. Many chronic illnesses don't offer that opportunity. Mental illness gives me the chance to recover day after day, countless times. Each time is a victory, a boost. If you can't beat it, you can certainly live with it. It is the ghost in the room, present but not often dangerous.

On Sunday I wrote about it, then I stepped back. I meditated and took a peek inside of my head. I listened to Alison Krauss for an hour or two, it is sometimes good to have someone to brood with.  Being sad is okay once in awhile, I deserve it once in awhile. I talked to Maria, who is nourishing and grounding for me. Talking to nourishing and grounding people – especially those who love you –  is essential for people with mental illness, they are the miracle cure.

I didn't require help Sunday night, mostly because I knew it was there if I needed it, and I had needed it. And it helped.  I realized this funk was an almost inevitable by-product of a week of turmoil, challenge and change. My world was upended when Maria left and my computer crashed, almost on the same day. Why wouldn't I crash too?

The curious truth is that it was no big deal. By Monday afternoon, I was fine, back to normal, the Black Dog ran off to find some another of the 42.5 million fellow travelers, he didn't have to go too far,  I am sure. He seems to always have a place to sleep.

I smile when I think of Sunday. Somehow, I needed it. I have learned to live with triggers and to recognize them.

I am here to tell you that recovery is always a gift, and an affirmation, a rebirth and redemption.  There is something rich and exhilarating about it.

I had a hospice patient who became a close friend who passed away a year ago after being stricken with a virulent cancer. Before he died, he took my hand and said he envied me my chronic illness of the mind. "You get to recover all the time."

I wanted to cry. I did


Posted in General

Smiling In Arizona

By: Jon Katz

Smiling In Arizona: Photo by Emma Span

Emma says Robin has her bad days, but mostly, she seems to be smiling her way through life. She is happy in Arizona vacationing and she was happy in Brooklyn and happy and smiling every time I've seen her. I hope she is on track to enjoy life.

Posted in General