Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

23 January

The New “Cheer Team” At Bishop Maginn: Finding Voices

by Jon Katz

The young women at Bishop Maginn badly wanted to start a cheerleading team, so they have and I have agreed to support them by raising money formats and uniforms for the girls without funds.

The school is calling it the “Cheer Team,” not the “Cheerleading Squad,” perhaps as a nod to the fact that cheerleading is considered controversial by some women who believe it is a stereotype that needs to be shed.

As soon as I mentioned the team yesterday, I got a message from Nancy: “I keep hoping that women will manage to evolve beyond the desire to be cheerleaders, and I keep being sadly disappointed.”

I expect some other people will feel the same way.

I am not a woman, obviously, and I understand where Nancy is coming from.

But I can’t agree with her.  I won’t judge these children in their desire to cheer their school on and also to find their own voices and sing their songs.

They will cheer for the school, and they will cheer up the school.

It isn’t my job to decide what these inner-city and refugee kids decide is best for them or what they need. I see already the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding this new venture.

The teachers at Bishop Maginn are surprised to see that some of the shyest and quietest young women in the school are the ones the most eager to be on the Cheer Squad. “This will be a great experience for them,” said one.

“I’m afraid to speak up in class sometimes,” one of the girls told me, “my English isn’t good yet, but I’ll have a big and loud voice on the team.” I get that. Many of these children have spent years in refugee camps and seen their homes and families destroyed.

They are often shy and uneasy as they try to acclimate to school and life in America. My own sense is that they need to do some healing before they take on our notions of feminist identity.

Coming to our country might be a powerful experience, but it is neither simple or easy for them.

They don’t come from a computer culture, and many of their families have ideas about women that are not widespread or popular in America. They have a lot of difficult waters to navigate.

They fight bigotry, trauma, hatred, poverty, language and culture barriers every day.  I think getting up on a stage, doing some mild acrobatics, singing my song to the world would have been great for me.

I think they know what they need better than I know what they need.

Just looking at this photograph tells me what a good idea this is for Bishop Maginn, these girls intend to bring some joy and pride to the world around them. Bishop Maginn needs some cheering, as we all do.

So next week we’ll put up a new Bishop Maginn Amazon Cheer Squad Wish List. On it will be some exercise mats and maybe a couple of pom-poms.

I ordered a bunch of pom-poms and shipped them to the school.

I’m hoping for Monday or Tuesday for the Wish List.

If anyone doesn’t like to use Amazon or go online and wants to contribute to the cheer squad, you can also send a contribution to me via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com, or by check, Jon Katz, Cheer Squad, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Thanks.

23 January

The Key To Liberation: Creativity And The Inner Quiet

by Jon Katz

More and more, I have come to understand that creativity has little to do with what I think, and more to do with who I am and where I am at any given moment. I call this The Now.

I am a worshipper of the moment, of now, for me, this was the road back to sanity and towards peace.

I came to see mostly that the mind exists to take us forward and back, it is a practical thing, not a creative thing. Creativity, in fact, is the absence of what we like to describe as thought.

I am learning to write and think out of the quiet, not the noise.

According to the spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle, writing in The Power Of Now, the mind is essentially a survival machine, a monster in some ways, storing and analyzing information, obsessed with the past, fearful of the future.

It is not the mind that is creative; it’s the absence of thinking. It’s a fascinating argument, and I have been living it,  working hard these past few years on the state of consciousness Tolle calls “the inner quiet.”

I think of the inner quiet like the feeling I got when lying on my back on a warm day, floating in a pond as smooth as glass and as quiet as space.

Enlightenment, Tolle says, means rising above thought: “When you do use your mind, and particularly when a creative solution is needed, you oscillate every few minutes or so between thought and stillness, between mind and no mind.”

Most of us are taught just the opposite. We fill our heads with worries, grievance, fear, and anger. We are so busy thinking we can’t think at all. That is the very embodiment of the chaotic information we like to call the news.

There is so much news, there is no news.

No mind, Tolle writes, is consciousness without thought, the state of inner quiet. Only in that state is it possible to think creatively, because only in that way does the idea have any real power.

Tolle writes that all true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness. The greatest scientists and artists, he argues, report that their significant breakthroughs come at a time of “mental quietude,” not the frenzied “thinking” that preoccupies and distracts so many of us.

When I sit down to write – or when Maria begins work on a quilt – we both work out of the quiet space Tolle describes. Sitting at my computer, there is no past, no future, only right now. Before I touch my keyboard, I ask, “where am I now,” and I write from there. It is the most peaceful place in my life, and there, I am free to be, as opposed to think.

I find this inner quiet by listening to my heart, my feelings, my body, not my mind. It isn’t through the mind, through thinking, that the world and human and animal life was created.

The more we learn about the body, says Tolle, the more we realize how powerful the intelligence is that works within it, and how little we know about it. When the mind reconnects with the body, it becomes a wonderful tool because it serves something greater than itself.

And it rises far above my fractured mind and has begun to serve something other than itself.

22 January

Here Comes The Bishop Maginn Cheerleading Squad!

by Jon Katz

Great news. Some of the young women at Bishop Maginn High School have banded together to take up cheerleading and start the school’s first-ever cheerleading squad.

I think we can be of great help, I can’t think of a better mission.

Principal Mike Tolan is delighted, and so was I.

These are hard times for Bishop Maginn and a cheerleading squad is timely and fun. Martina (above), an international student from Italy, is the team’s first co-captain.

I met with her today at the high school.

Next week, I’m going to meet the whole squad and get a video of them at work. I’m also going to be supporting a new Bishop Maginn Amazon Cheerleading Squad Wish List, they need some gym mats to work out on and practice their moves.

I gather some of the cheerleaders are normally shy and reserved, cheerleading seems to be bringing them out. I might get to the school early in the week to see the team, exercise mats are about all they need to get started.

I’ll know for sure next week but five to ten mats should be enough for the team.

Martina says the girls are very excited about the new squad and are working hard in practice (but they don’t have any mats). They are eager to practice and represent the school and support the growing school spirit there.

The cheerleaders are paying for their own uniforms, one or two might need some help. This is a perfect mission for an Amazon Wish List, and for the Army Of Good. I’ll keep you posted.

The school, embattled in recent years, faces an uphill struggle to survive, but the school is beginning to sing its song.

22 January

Melak And Zinnia. Let Your Heart Sing

by Jon Katz

I spent some time with Malek yesterday; she is the very special and charismatic refugee driven from two countries by war  – Iraq and Syria – and into the refugee camps for years.

We work on her writing and have become good friends. She is special. I could see she was upset and asked her if she wanted to talk. After my class, we sat down together and I listened.

She is 17, a senior at Bishop Maginn High School; she works part-time at a movie theater in Albany at the concession stand. She has had a hard life and a tough week or two, for reasons I can’t share.

She seemed heartbroken to me.

She is having a hard time.

We have helped pay her tuition; she is well worth our support.

We talked in the classroom where I teach my Writing Workshop and where we have been training Zinnia.  Malek is part of the team.

At one point, as Malek was talking to me, tears ran down her cheeks, and her voice broke.

Zinnia was at the far side of the classroom chewing on a toy,  and when she heard Malek’s voice break, I saw Zinnia’s head turn sharply. She got up and came over to Malek and crawled under her chair, and just lay down.

It was a striking thing to witness, the playful puppy morphing into something else right in front of me.

It isn’t something I have seen her do with anyone, including me.

Malek lowered her hand, and Zinnia reached up and licked it and held still as Malek stroked her head and reached down to pet her.

It was apparent to me that Zinnia sensed Malek’s sadness and hurt, even from across the room; she presented herself to her and lay still for four or five minutes as Malek talked to me. She just got close.

Zinnia has wise eyes, they are deep.

I wish I could help Malek, but the most help I could offer was to listen. She needed to talk. And she’s in a good place. The people at the school care.

But Zinnia’s intuition was striking, it lifted my heart, and also Malek’s spirits.

The great therapy dogs know who needs them and who doesn’t.

Red had that gift.

Zinnia has that gift, surprising in a dog a little more than three months old.

Perhaps all the great dogs know when people need them, not just the therapy dogs.

Zinnia can’t solve Malek’s problem any more than I can, but she is a spirit dog, and she can lift and soften and comfort bleeding souls.

I am grateful to have seen that moment and been a part of it. My heart sang seeing the feeling that past between these two, and sometimes, being loved has to be enough.

Zinnia was what Malek needed, those precious minutes were healing.

22 January

Zinnia’s Training Team At Bishop Maginn

by Jon Katz

One of the best training ideas I’ve ever had has involved setting up a Zinnia Training Team at Bishop Maginn High School, all very bright students in my writing class. Mike, Katie, Blue, and Grace (Gabe sitting) have all volunteered to train Zinnia with me at the school.

We are also working with other students – more later.

This has been great for Zinnia, for me, and for the students, who are learning a lot about dogs. It is lovely to be training a therapy dog in the very place she will be working with the very people she’ll be working with.

We meet every Wednesday, and each student walks Zinnia through the “come, sit, lie down, and you’re free” commands. We also worked to teach her how to go after balls and toys and bring them back.

We wore her out; she slept on the way back to the farm. Zinnia is entirely at home at Bishop Maginn and the Mansion.

Some of the students are quiet and shy; Zinnia is helping to open them up. They are getting stronger and more confident each week.

We met four girls in the hallway – they had been taking some tests. I heard Sue Silverstein yell, “puppy,” and they came running. Zinnia is a princess; she expects to be loved and surrounded and handles it with grace and style.

I love having a dog who makes people smile and laugh; it makes me smile and laugh also. We’ll be back next week to meet the new cheerleading squad, Bishop Maginn’s first. I’ll take a video and try to raise some money for them to have training mats.

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