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“Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell
10 February 2016

On Being Mortal: Saying Goodbye To Simon

By: Jon Katz
On Being Mortal

On Being Mortal: Simon's last breath.

Maria took the photo above, it was me kneeling next to Simon, hugging him as he took his last breath.

It is not, I think, possible to love life without despairing of life. I think one defines and gives birth to the other. I have been writing lately about being mortal, and I think nothing reminds us of being mortal more than losing the people we love or the animals we love.

For all of our arrogance, we cannot control our cells and genes forever. That is mortality.

I do not ever compare the death of people with the death of animals and pets, no matter how beloved the latter.  I am sorry when someone tells me the death of a dog or cat was just like the death of a child or spouse. For me, that is not true, and I do not ever want it to be true. I remember being on an NPR panel when one of the guests said she had lost her cat and it was just like losing a child. And the women sitting next to us burst into tears, her son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

I hope my daughter never thinks I equate her life with a border collie or a barn cat.

Grieving is an individual thing, a personal thing, it is different for every person and I respect everyone's grieving process. No one can or should tell anyone how it ought to be done. Grieving is a sacrament in a way, a testament to life. However different our lives and values, one thing all of us will share is the experience of loss and grief. And then, the experience of being loss and grief.

Animals can help us understand grieving and mortality, one of their many gifts to us, and their last.

Two years ago, I looked out the bedroom window and saw Simon shake his head and turn away from the hay feeder. I knew what had happened right away, he had a stroke and was dying. "He's not going to make it," I told Maria as we hurried outside.

Animals cannot generally be treated for strokes, not donkeys out in a pasture. I sent a video of Simon's shaking head to Ken Norman, our farrier, who was in the hospital at the time, he messaged back that it didn't look good. Ken had helped save Simon's life when the police took him off a farm where he had been cruelly neglected.

We rushed outside and Simon staggered and fell to his knees. The vet came quickly and said he was near death. We gave him an injection that killed him and ended his suffering. We buried him in the pasture.

Simon was very special to me, and to Maria. We nursed him back to health after his near starvation and death, he was the sweetest of creatures, he loved to walk with me, nuzzle me, talk to me. He was gentle with people and he loved children, he was a huge favorite at our Open Houses. I wrote a book about him called "Saving Simon."

I do not think of Simon often, but I feel very good about his time with us. He came back to health, loved his life here, I think. He got plenty of good food and attention, and every day began with Lulu and Fanny kicking him on one side of the head or another. He never seemed to mind.

He had many admirers from all over the world.

We were horrified by his attacks on Rocky, the blind old pony, but he was, after all, just being a donkey, protecting the girls from a sick herd member. That's what equines too, they keep the predators away.

When people ask me about Simon, I tell them he had a great life for the four or five years that we had him, and his l life turned out to be a triumph of love and trust. He helped me to open up, accept Red and the idea of leaving the first Bedlam Farm, he helped me find the generous and nurturing parts of me, he loved me back and permitted me to help him heal. I so cherished our walks together in the woods, it was as if we were discovering the world together.

Simon helped me to understand the idea of death, as hospice work has also done for me. Death is everywhere, it is close, is it coming to me and everyone I know and love. Animals give us the chance to learn about death, to feel our way through grief and loss, to gain perspective on.

I am nothing but grateful for Simon's time in my life, I do not mourn him often or frequently.

How could I really, where there are so many things in my life to love and be grateful for – Maria, Red, Fate, Lulu, Fanny, Chloe,  my writing, friends, photography, farm, community, my restored heart, even the dumb sheep and simple chickens.

To some extent, grief is not a choice – we cannot escape it or wave it away, it will take its own time with us. If we are patient and healthy, we will find a way to process it, and then,  to some extent, let it go.  We will resume life.

If we choose a life with animals, we will come to know death often and well. A farm is all about life and death, I don't care to count or recall all of the animals who have died here, all the lambs that didn't make it, all the dogs that are gone, the roosters and chickens who died.

To some extent, grief is a choice for me. I can't wallow in it, return to it, or I can live in the present and look ahead. This morning, standing at the gate, I missed Simon very much, he was always there to greet me with his call to life.

Life was very much his legacy, he always reminded me that it was precious and not to spend too much of it in sorrow.

Posted in General

The Carriage Horses And The Mayor: “Cry Out In Shame Against Me, Yet I’ll Speak”

By: Jon Katz
Dave, Carriage Driver

Dave, Carriage Driver, Reading His  Daily Journal. Photo By Christina Hansen

"I hold my peace, sir? no; No, I will speak as liberal as the north; Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, all, cry out in shame against me, yet I'll speak." – Othello, William Shakespeare.

Once more, from the unnecessary story that will not die, the controversy that wasn't, the crisis that isn't:

Mayor Bill deBlasio of New York City told reporters yesterday that he would try again to curb or restrict the New York Carriage trade and that he still believed the horses should be prohibited from working and living in New York City.

it is easy enough to insult the mayor and call him names, social media is full of that, and the people in the carriage trade are foaming at the mouth,  but it is more challenging to try to understand him.

I am drawn to tragic public figures and their stories – and quite mesmerized at the parallels between people like Richard Nixon and  Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton and the mayor, all powerful and intelligent men who set out with the most noble of intentions and ended up setting themselves on fire for the most personal and inexplicable – and unnecessary –  of reasons.

I did not expect to ever see a man who calls himself progressive behave in so oppressive a way.

Aren't we supposed to at least pretend to listen to the people? ( I confess to having  daydreams about Teddy Roosevelt, a former New York City Police Commissioner, who rode his horse right up a dusty and unpaved Broadway to attend meetings with the city's civic leaders. What would he have said to the idea that horses were too fragile to be in New York?)

We never know about these people in power, it is really a great roll of the dice, for all our devices, we can never really see behind the curtain.

Sometimes events overcome and destroy them, sometimes they are simply broken in some way we can't see, and sometimes they just destroy themselves.  When this happens, they leave the temporal realm and enter the world of mythic imagination, we have to leave them to the historians to pick over, they are beyond us.

We can never understand the people we hate and insult, we have to step back and let others take a deeper and more detached look.

"One may smile and smile, and be a villain." – Hamlet.

Trying to figure this out, I reached back into cultural history for some explanation, I found a clue in Shakespeare. The mayor, in his now-historic pursuit of the much-loved and healthy horses, has stepped out of the realm of conventional politics and into the world of Shakespearean tragedy.

Shakespearean tragedy is the classification of drama written by William Shakespeare. In his most famous plays, he created a protagonist who has lofty, even noble ambitions but who is flawed in some way. The hero is placed in a stressful, perhaps controversial and complex situation, the story ends poorly for him, often in a fatal conclusion.

The hero is powerful, but blinded by hubris and poor decisions.

The plots of Shakespearean tragedy focus on the loss of power and reason of the central character, once feared, but broken or disturbed. Their rigidity and arrogance leads to their ruin. (King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth).

"Madness in great ones, must not unwatched, go." – Hamlet.

Here, we have the powerful mayor of great city, swept into office on a great wave of support and hope, defeated resoundingly twice and nearly done in by the descendants of immigrants and some rescued work horses from the farms and slaughterhouses of Pennsylvania. I wish I had written a book like that. It may yet be a movie.

The main characters in a Shakespearean tragedy obsessively pursue a central conflict to the point that their social and political structures are destroyed. They inevitably fall and fail, blinded by ambition and loss of reason. Something about power corrupts their instincts for self-preservation, you can see their inevitable ruin coming a long way off, and it's very inevitability makes the story so compelling.

All Bill deBlasio had to do was forget about the carriage horses, and move on. Few people in New York thought about them or cared about them, at least at first, while so many larger and more pressing issues cried out for attention. The mayor who ran on the promise to help the poor and forgotten declared instead that his number one priority was to ban the carriage horses from the city. It was an awful note on which to start, it echoes still.

Bill deBlasio has brushed aside his many advisers and friends who were pleading with him to drop the carriage horse issue and move on to things people cared about, and were much more pressing.  It is understandable that the carriage drivers hate and fear the mayor, his campaign against them has been cruel and unjust.

Just ask their families who are not sure from one month to the next if they can feed their children or send them to college.

Imagine being pursued so relentlessly by someone as powerful and unwilling to talk, negotiate or reason. What more Shakespearean image could there be than the King Of The Progressives, suddenly bent on the destruction of good and honest working men and women who have broken no laws and done no wrong? Most of these people are classic figures in the Great American Dream, the poor and the children of the poor to came to America to keep their way of lives and escape government oppression.

But wait, the story gets even better.

Seemingly drunk on power, awash in money from millionaire real estate developers and animal rights activists who hate the horses – they all seem as flawed as he is –  the mayor turns these once obscure horse tradespeople into powerful heroes who gather support from everywhere and, against all odds, thwart him at every turn and grow ever more powerful and entrenched, even as he grows more isolated and disliked.

Imagine the poor in their cramped and outrageously expensive apartments – those are the lucky ones – looking over their shoulders at the gentrifiers, saving pennies for heat and rent – while the mayor they elected spends vast amounts of time and energy and good will to drive some horses who are bothering no one out of Central Park? Shakespeare would have had a few of them confront their King, challenge him with angry words.

And then there are the gentle and beloved horses put in peril. What rational hero would want to be on the wrong side of that story?

Wow, the other Bill would have loved to write a play about it.

"Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." – King Lear, William Shakespeare

The more the mayor pressed on, the more corrupt and disingenuous he appeared, the more he insisted he was acting out of principle, the more people believed he wasn't.

Now, after two humiliating, almost catastrophic defeats, some of the most powerful labor unions in the city are calling for state and federal investigations into the mayor and his connections to the people who gave him so much money, after which he vowed to ban the carriage horses on his very first day in office.

These are people attorney generals listen to. The labor unions and some media organizations are demanding to know what the money was for. I am not one of those who insists the mayor is corrupt, I don't know, I wasn't there. But he is now under a cloud of mistrust and seeming impropriety.

And the appearance of impropriety is what prosecutors investigate.

It is difficult to sympathize with the mayor,  I can't recall a once popular politician so hell-bent on ruin, and I feel for the suffering of the carriage trade. But it is possible to feel for him. Flawed kings go hard, but they always go. That is the very essence of tragedy.

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:  Words without thoughts never to heaven go." –  Hamlet.


Posted in General

Landscapes Of My Life, Cont.

By: Jon Katz


The back pasture is a Canopy of Peace o the farm, it seems far removed from the frantic and angry world, there the dogs keep a watchful on their flock, the sheep grate and stare peacefully, the farmhouse sits on its rise above the streams, safe and welcoming, Maria's studio beaming in the background. This is one of my favorite landscapes.

Posted in General

Landscapes Of My Life

By: Jon Katz
Landscapes Of My Life

Landscapes Of My Life

Sometimes I see my life as a series of landscapes, and now that I am a photographer, I can, like a painter, record them and share them. One of the new landscapes in my life is this genial but willful horse, a pony, of course, so much like her human, the two of them are often out walking in the pasture, exploring the woods, talking with one another. I love the landscapes of my life, and I am happy I can capture them, they are embedded in my mind.

It is a new thing for a horse to be in my landscapes, I am still getting used to it, this one seems so natural.

Posted in General

Epiphanies And Dogs: Sensing Creation

By: Jon Katz


Sometimes I think my life is a series of epiphanies, Fate is a creature of epiphanies, she is a passionate explorer and discover of the world, curious and vigilant and determined. An epiphany is a term from ancient Greece, it can be a manifestation or sudden realization, it is often used to describe scientific breakthroughs or profound spiritual discoveries.

In ordinary life, it can apply in any situation that allows a problem or solution to be understood from a new and perhaps wiser perspective. Epiphanies are considered critical in the study of innovation, also in self-discovery and awareness.

I think for me, an epiphany enables me to sense creation not as something that is finished or complete, but as something living and organic, something that is constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This is so important to the workings of my mind, to the idea of staying open. Epiphanies transport me from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything speaks of rebirth and renewal, where heaven and earth can rejoice at the very idea of creation.

And so, I had an epiphany this morning, standing on the road, watching Fate vanish into her beloved meadow, I had to look carefully to even see her, it is beautiful here at any time of the year. My connection with Fate is this sense of discovery, of continuing epiphanies. She is always showing hers to me, I am always offering mine to her. Dogs can do that for us, if we pay attention to them, they are open and alert to the sights and smells and sounds of the world, they live in a place where there is nothing new and nothing old, where everything renews itself.

What a gift to me, to us.

Posted in General