Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

25 June

Living With The Past

by Jon Katz

It’s a big idea in the spiritual world to live in the present. It’s a Buddhist and meditation idea as well, every healer or would be healer I know advocates living in the now as a way of dealing with the pain and complexities of life, and of the world.

Live in the moment. Live in the present. The past doesn’t matter, the future is  unknowable. Some of the time, I can do that. Some of the time I can’t. I find that most spiritual things are like that, they are goals, aspirations, but not always real or possible.

I think of the past often, it haunts me, taunts me, shadows me. Mental illness is a ghost, I think, it doesn’t go away because you want it to. There are people in my life, some quite close to me, that have no idea what I am like or how I feel. When I think of the past, I usually blink, and not in pleasure.

Like the gurus and masters say, I’d love to banish the past, I rarely look back and I shudder when I think of the past, and when I fell apart and hurt so many people.

I would surely be lighter without the past, and free of so much confusion and regret.

In his book The Eternal Now, Paul Tillich claims it is certainly possible to shed one’s past. He writes that the strength of a character is dependent on the amount of things that he has thrown into the past, and I would add, the amount of things he can let go of.

In spite of the power his past holds over him, writes Tillich, a man can separate  himself from it, take it out of the present and back where it belongs, ineffective and irrelevant.

It can, he warns, sometimes return and take over the present, but that is not inevitable. It can choke off healing, rebirth and renewal. If you think about the people you know who are continuously retelling the past and living in it, you may see, like I have,  that they are in trouble, they are unhappy, often struggling to move forward with their lives.

Nostalgia and regret are choices, I think, they sometimes rear their ugly heads, but I usually send them packing, smothering them with my own rebirth and healing.

The past doesn’t like rebirth and healing, and can’t, in my case, live with it. One ends up eating the other or pushing it aside.

Tillich says the way to take the past and make it really past is repentance. He isn’t talking about the religious idea of repentance – declaring oneself a sinner and asking forgiveness.

Genuine repentance to him is not the feeling of sorrow about  wrong actions or mistakes, but the act of the whole person in which he or she separates oneself from actions,  stories and elements of their own being, discarding them into the past like cartons of old letters or dusty and unused furniture.

I’ve done this with visualizations many times. I take things  from the past, think of them as being red or blue or green basketballs or soccer balls, and I kick them over a hill and out of sight. Believe it or not, I’ve found that quite often, they just don’t come back.

In doing this, the past becomes something that no longer has any power over the present. I think that’s the way. Rather than just get rid of it, take it’s power away. The present is what matters, the spiritualists are right about that.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that the past was a “curse,” to be feared and driven away.

I have also found that I can help live with the past through forgiveness, by which I mean forgiving me, as well as others.

If the meaning of the past is changed by forgiveness, then it’s power over the future is also changed.  The “character of the curse,” as the theologians say, is also changed. The curse is taken out of it.

I find in my life that other people hang onto my past even when I can’t or don’t. They seem me in terms of the past, and don’t or won’t try to know me now. Some people need the past, they feed on it.

I need to let them go.

I am still the same person, but I am different. The past grows paler all the time, like the early morning mist, hanging on until the sun rises over the hill to burn it away. To me, the past is full of emptiness. It’s the now that is so full of love and light.

How much can I really change? I have no idea.

25 June

Welcome To Bud’s World

by Jon Katz

Bud is having a blast on the farm. Sometimes he rushes out and moves the sheep, as he did this morning (please note he ran them right over Fate, who lay still and watched as the Boston Terrier took control of the herd.

Bud’s herding is not pretty, and it certainly is not classic. But he does get the job done when  he’s not chasing after a mice or a rabbit. Bud has his regular stops now – by the pond, by the stone wall, in the mash, in the back woods, underneath the Skid Born, where hedgehogs live.

In the warm summer sun, he rushes from one of his regular stops to the next, hoping to flush out some rodent. No luck yet. When he is thoroughly worn out, he either jumps into the pond to cool off, or rushes up to me to get  his treat. Then we go inside to cool off.

I keep thinking Fate will either be inspired or embarrassed into doing some herding, but I see that’s not going to happen. This is not what I expected.

Bud’s world is a happy place, he has his routine, he never runs off, he always comes back to me or to Maria. I think he knows he has a good thing going there, he’s seen the other path.

25 June

At The Mansion, We Travel: The Sweetest Applause I Ever Got

by Jon Katz

At The Mansion, inspired by the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a half-dozen other writers, we sat in the Activity Room of The Mansion for my weekly story reading to the Mansion residents.

It was pouring outside, the room was warm, the rain beating on the windows, the sky back with thunder clouds, the residents still excited by the appearance of an otter in the creek behind the building.

I decided to take them to different places today, we went to the little village of Macondo in Marquez’s magical One Hundred Years Of Solitude,  a book I never imagined reading to these good people on the edge of life, most of them raised on the farms or small villages of upstate New York.

In todays, chapter, Ursula lost her patience with her feckless husband Jose Arcadio Buendia, who kept spending all their money on the inventions brought to town by the mysterious  aging gypsy Melquidiades who was Buendia’s age, but who aged mysteriously.

It was,” wrote Marquez – the residents were transfixed – “in reality, the result of multiple and rare diseases contracted on his innumerable trips around the world. He was a fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that had ever lashed mankind. he had survived pellagra in Persia, scurvy in the Malayan archipelago, leprosy in Alexandra, beriberi in Japan, bubonic plague in Madagascar, an earthquake in Sicily, an a disastrous shipwreck in the Strait of Magellan.

Ursala was sick of the gypsy’s annual appearances in Macondo. Every year, her husband gave him all of their food money for the new inventions he brought, thinking they would bring wealth, but they only brought more poverty.

After we left Macondo, I read an inventive animal story, The Someone New,  by Jill Twiss and Eg Keller about how otters and ducks and butterflies accepted a newcomer, a snail named Pudding, after rejecting him out of fear things would change.

The residents related to that story, as Heather from the Battenkill bookstore knew they might. When I came into the bookstore for my weekly pre-reading visit,  she usually has a new book for me to read to the residents.

We talked about the fear of something new, in terms of coming to a place like the Mansion, or welcoming new people.

We went with Maisie the border collie puppy to Moonrise Farm, where she yearned to have a job and studied patiently under the watchful eye of Laddie, the older sheep dog.

The book – by John and Jennifer Churchman –  has the most wonderful pictures of the dogs and farm animals, the residents oohed and aaahed and smiled as I walked the book around to them as I read it so they could see the photos.

I read a great favorite, the Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, they laugh at me and the wonky donkey fun plays on words. They always clap and laugh when they hear it. The residents love the ridiculous and the absurd.

I read some of Shel Silverstein’s oddball poems (Where The Sidewalk Ends)  – Madeline observed that he had a Jewish name, she knew that from living in New York. When I left, Madeline thanked me and asked me what my name was.

She will not remember it for a minute. She always tells me that Red’s collar is too tight, I always loosen it so she can see.

And I read a Native American story, The Girl and the Wolf  by Katherena Vermette, about a nameless girl who wanders off from her mother and gets lost in the woods. She is wandering frightened in the dark when a big silver wolf appears and asks her if she is lost.

We all tensed up – I could feel the anxiety in the room – but it turned out the wolf always guided lost children home when he found them, and encouraged them to use their instincts to make their way.

The girl trusted him from the beginning.

It was in a sense, the perfect Mansion story, the residents all expect one kind of ending, and are relieved and surprised to find another.

We talked about wolves, and they said they have never heard a happy story about a wolf and a child. Happy endings are important to them.

I am always a bit anxious when I read to the residents, I worry that I am boring, or am picking the wrong books. and several people always fall asleep. Some, confused, talk over me. Others comment on the stories. A few are rapt, they never take their eyes off of me.

I bring a new story every week, I am learning what to choose.

But here’s my happy ending.

When I got up to pack up my books – I feel like one of those traveling story tellers in medieval times  – there was applause! They were clapping for me, and thanking me, they loved the stories they heard today, the mix, the twists and turns, the journeys to other places.

Marquez, as it turns out, is the perfect author for the Mansion residents, his stories are full of magic and mysticism, things they love to hear about but have usually never experienced.

So are the farm and animal stories, especially those with beautiful pictures and drawings.

I love this work, we go to different places every week. It’s like taking a magical trip, we all step ourselves to other places. I’ve got to read more slowly and with more feeling, I think.

This is a kind of acting.

I’ve done scores of reading and public appearances, and heard lots of applause. But I don’t think I ever got applause that was as sweet as the applause I got today at the Mansion.

25 June

Microscopes And Laptops Ma Myint Is In…

by Jon Katz

Ma Myint has been accepted to the Bishop Maginn High School. I will shortly be asking for help and providing details in how we can help her with the school’s tuition. If you wish to contribute now – I’m not sure of the total amount we are seeking yet, it will be between $3,000 and $6,000. I wrote about her yesterday.

She has come a very long way to get to Bishop Maginn – genocide, flight, hunger, and open heart surgery. If you wish to contribute now you can send your tax-deductible contribution to Mike Tolan, Principal, Bishop Maginn High School, 75 Park Avenue, Albany, New York, 12202.

We doing well by the new Amazon Bishop Maginn Wish List. On this list, four computers remaining ($200 a piece), 12 microscopes and some very inexpensive gift cards.

Soon, we’ll be adding some school supplies for the Fall, half of the students show up with no supplies of any kind.

25 June

My Historic $4,000 Dentist’s Bill. Faith And Gratitude

by Jon Katz

A few months ago, my dentist, Dr. Dembrowski, a doctor I trust and respect greatly, told me I need to have two crowns replaced, she was especially concerned because there had been recession of my gums, there was deep tooth decay around the base of them, I might need oral surgery.

First, I had to get some deep cleaning from Sue, who did some painful but necessary gum cleaning.  She even played Aretha Franklin on the speakers for me.

Today I went to have the crowns removed, to be fitted for two new ones, and to have the decay removed from beneath the old crowns, so the new ones would be added.

We had a good time, all things considered. It was pretty intense, it took two hours, and my mouth is sore.

I had nothing to do but lie there and wait for my novacaine to take  effect, Dr. Dembrowski and I talked about the Avengers movies, and she explained how Captain America went back in time and emerged seconds later as an older man. She didn’t like the ending of the movie either.

When I left, we went over what all of this would cost. Shelley, the office manager, said the insurance company wouldn’t pay for any of it –  we were not surprised. The procedure took two hours and was effective. I don’t need a root canal, at least for now. I have two temporary crowns in my mouth, am going back in a few weeks to get my new ones.

Dr. Dembrowski and Ariele (above) worked awfully hard and saved me from further or more serious damage. It seems they caught it just in the nick of time.

When I left, she told me the bill for all this work would be $4,000. I did gulp. This was historic, the largest medical bill I have received in my life. My open heart surgery cost $400, the insurance company did pay for almost all of that. We never really know why they do what they do.

I had a momentary panic. Like most people I do not have $4,000 in the bank waiting for an emergency. I asked Shelly if we could work out a payment plan. She said sure, of course. Up here in the country, when you want time to pay a bill, people usually say “sure, we know where you live.” That’s  just what she said.

I’ve been going there for some years, we know and trust one another.

Before panicking, I decided to be grateful for the truly wonderful work Dr. Dembrowski and Ariele did this morning, and the work Sue, the hygienest did to prepare my teeth for the surgery. It could have been a lot worse, and it almost was.

Then, I remembered a man I met in the waiting room on one visit who needed surgery on his gums and had two infected teeth. He wasn’t going to get any treatment, he aid, his wife was sick and needed a lot of medicine, they couldn’t go into debt any further.

What will you do?, I asked. “Well, I’m 77, I just hope I’ll die before my teeth fall out. What else can I do?”

Lots of people have it worse than me, I see them in the line at the pharmacy all the time, bartering for a few pills at a time, because they can’t afford to fill the prescription. I love my country, but are sometimes a very hard people.

I’ve given up on panic and any form of self-pity in recent years, it is epidemic as I look around the world. I turn instead to gratitude and faith. Ali Wilson of Portland, Oregon wrote me a beautiful letter I found in my Post Office Box his morning, she read something I wrote about being broken. “Louise Penny says,” Ali wrote, that “brokenness is how the light gets in,” and she added, “how the darkness gets out.”

A beautiful point. I am careful now about what angers me and what frightens me. Faith and gratitude are anchors.

I also decided to be grateful for a dental office that would work with me to pay this unexpected debt off over a couple of months. I remember when Maria needed dental work and she asked if she could pay it off in installments and they suggested she get a new credit card, offered for just such occasions.

In our country 47 per cent of the population does not have $400 available for any kind of emergency. I am not quite there, but close. It is a very common experience and I hate to think of how many needed dental procedures don’t ever get done.

I am one of the lucky ones. I get the best dental care, can keep my teeth and mouth healthy and can pay this very large amount off in chunks. I don’t have to go into debt.

In our time and our world that makes me lucky, and I appreciate it. Dr. Dembrowski and Ariele and Sue and the dental clinic earned every penny of this pill and I am already at work plotting how to pay it off.

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