Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

17 January

Thanks, Mary Oliver, Observer Of Life

by Jon Katz

As many of you perhaps already know, Mary Oliver, the poet and a beloved spirt to me and to Maria, died today She often described her work as the observation of life, and she considered the love of nature and the love of life to be her faith.

Critics compared her to Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, and she was the most successful and loved poet in America. I doubt you will see much about her on the news today or tomorrow she was the antithesis of the news, gentle, kind empathic and deeply spiritual, loving the small things in nature, loving animals.

Tonight, Maria and I will dedicate an hour or so to  her. We will sit in the dark, light a candle, perhaps listen to videos of some of readings. And we’ll honor her beautiful poem “Mornings At Blackwater,” which we had a friend read at our wedding.

I want to share the last three verses of the beautiful poem. Soon after we married, we drove to Provincetown, Mass, to walk around Blackwater Pond, which Oliver did every morning of the 40 years that she lived in Provincetown before moving to Florida a few years ago.

What I want to say is

that the past is the past

and the present is what your life is,

and you are capable

of what choosing what will be,

darling citizen.

So come to the pond,

or the river of your imagination, 

or the harbor of your longing,

and put  your lips to the world,

and live your life.”

And that is what we did, and do,

every day of our lives. She was our poet,

our anthem, our spirit.

She helped us learn to love nature

and observe it closely,

and to love our loves,

and put our lips to the world,

Which is what we have done,

or tried to do. Every day.

Thanks Mary, and godspeed to you.

In the “Spring,” here in its entirety, she wrote:

I live my face to the pale flowers of the rain. They’re soft as linen,

clean as  holy water. Meanwhile my dog runs off,

noses down packed leaves

into damp, mysterious tunnels.

He says the smells are rising now

stiff and lively; he says the beasts

are waking up now full of oil,

sleep sweat, tag-ends of dreams.

The rain rubs is shining hands all over me.

My dog returns and  barks fiercely,

he says,

each secret body is the richest advisor,

deep in the black earth such fuming

nuggets of joy!”

I can’t mourn Mary Oliver too deeply,

after all, she lives on in so many ways,

we will never forget her, she is

in our hearts and souls and love,

in the nature of the world,

in our coming to the pond

or the river of our imagination,

and our putting our lips to the world

and living our lives.

17 January

Growing The Muscles For Living: Talking To The Sick And The Dying

by Jon Katz

Something I’ve learned in recent years.

The more time I spend in the presence of aging and death, the less i fear either. My time talking to the sick and the dying has greatly enriched and enhanced my life, despite the fact that for most of my life me and everyone around me was taught to avoid doing either.

We are taught that death is our enemy, but I no longer believe. It is living an angry or meaningless life that is the enemy, or living for money, which is the new slavery.

Somebody – I think it was Shakespeare – said that we all owe God a death. That’s the deal, that’s the toll and the contract for living. We can hide from it, whine about it, run from it, but it will always be there, just around the corner, waiting for us to show up.

And we don’t get to choose when.

In her beautiful book on hope, Anne Lamott writes in her honest book “Almost Everything: Notes On Hope,” that the people we lose on this side of eternity, “whom you can no longer call or text, will live again fully in your heart and the the world. They will make you smile…”

In our culture, we are taught from our first days to hide from death and run from the elderly at they approach the edge of life. The dying are hidden away in hospitals and hospice rooms and  nursing homes for the most part, the elderly locked away and hidden from view, all in the name of protecting their privacy from us.

But in my hospice and assisted care therapy work, I learned that anything that is scary or disturbing becomes much less scary and disturbing once I confront it, investigate it, and approach with it. My therapy work has been my spiritual work, it has opened me up to life.

I have had some of the most beautiful conversations and moments in my life in hospice, as liberated and spiritual people prepared to leave the world. And I have come to love the elderly people I work with at the Mansion, they are funny, warm, loving and wise. Some of them are deliciously odd and unpredictable. They love to sing, they love to dance, they love to laugh. Some of them even love me, a kind of love and connection I have rarely felt in my life.

And believe me, they know what love is and isn’t.

Talking to the sick and the elderly has given my life a much wanted spiritual depth and dimension.

It has taken away my fear of aging and dying, my discomfort with the sick and the very old. The wrinkled faces are beautiful to me now, it is a joy to photograph them, talk to them, help them. I used to find them ugly, even repulsive. I was blind to them, in part because I rarely saw them.

Today, I went to the Mansion and Ruth gestured to me to come over and talk to her.

“Do you still give away those envelopes and cards  you bring here?” Yes, I do, I said. “Can you get some Valentine’s Day Cards for me, there are people who I love.” Of course, I said, I can’t imagine a better thing to bring.

They love, too, just like the rest of us.

It is not a healthy or spiritual thing to run from death or hide from the elderly, where almost all of us will be in a blink. I spend a lot of time with old people now, and we have fun. They know a lot of things, and yes, they need help sometimes. They teach me something every time I see them. That’s the core of it, I want to know what they know and see what they have seen.

I understand that the young have no great need to think much about death, or get too close to it. Death is creepy when you have so much to live for, so much life ahead.  But they don’t  have to hide from it either. That just makes the inevitable awakening all the harder.

A half century ago, young people saw death all the time, their parents and grandparents died in the next bed. We don’t do that anymore, and when the mask comes off, it is often a hard and terrifying place to be.

My spiritual breakthroughs have almost all come from what I  have seen of sickness, struggle, loss and death. That’s when we open our eyes and hearts.

“The reason to draw close to death,” writes Lamott, “is to practice living and finding in the soul.”

This, she adds,  grows our muscles for living.

17 January

Jay Bridge, A Geologist Looks At Our Humble Well

by Jon Katz

Jonathan Bridge is one of the most interesting and classiest carpenter/handymen/wizard I have met in my life in the country.

On farms, all sorts of things can and do go wrong, and when they do, a lot depends on getting good help quickly. I’ve experienced all kinds of electrical and water crises from fouled water to lightning damage to electrical problems, and now, our point well has shut down.

You really can’t do better than Jay, who is a friend, but also a remarkable man. He is a geologist and engineer by training, he retired a few years ago and works as a carpenter and handyman for complex projects.

He is quiet, deliberate and extraordinarily competent,  everything he does is done well, quietly and thoughtfully.

He helped us when our pipes froze, he helped us get a water line out to the pasture (we were hauling buckets for a couple of years), he put a new room on our decaying front porch, saving us from a rotted roof.

Last night and this morning, four different plumbers declined to help us, they were all too busy or were wary of point wells. Point wells are very different from the water systems that urban and suburban homeowners use, and they are different from most of the wells country people use.

Ours was probably dug nearly a century ago, the farmers like point wells because they are far less expensive than wells that are dug deep with heavy machinery, and the farmers can maintain them, even replace them, themselves. All they need is a pump, a pipe and a sledgehammer.

We live above a high water table, so a point well makes some sense.

Simply put, a point well is not a dug well, but a pipe 10 to 20 feet deep on average that is hammered into the ground. A pump (Jay is looking at our pump now as I write this) attaches to the pump and a water tank and when the tank runs low water, the pump clicks on automatically – making a deep rumbling noise – and refills the tank.

If the water table is high, like ours, there’s no need to dig deep down. One problem is that few plumbers will work on point wells any more, it’s hard lab0r to hammer those pipes into the ground.

It seems that our pump has “seized up,” either burned out or worn out in some  way. It was purchased in 1978. It’s due to die, it gave us great service. I just wish it had chosen a more opportune time to quit, like mid-summer. We are already hauling buckets out to the pasture.

Jay is checking to see if the pump needs to be replaced or can be repaired. A new pump can cost up to $300. If there is a more serious problem with the well, we may have to get a new well dug, which can cost up to $7,000 and take a long time to get dug, especially in this weather.

That would be a huge and disruptive problem.

There is plenty of water all around us, so I would image the problem is the pump.

Point well pipes can sometimes clog up, and that is messy repair. But as the water was flowing quite steadily all week, and the pump has obviously shut down, and can’t be re-started, or “primed,” that is the most likely issue.

We are keeping our fingers crossed especially as the temperatures will be 25 degrees below normal in a day or so an a massive storm is predicted for Saturday night and into Sunday. I think Jay decided to be an angel today, he has plenty to do, he agreed right away to come over here.

Nobody will be going anywhere after this storm hits, and even Jay won’t be able to get here. If our pump is fixed, Maria and I plan on priming the bedroom, getting it ready to paint. All the walls are scraped.

This was a little bone-rattling, but I ought to say that this is the life I choose, Maria too.

We both  used to live in places where water is taken absolutely for granted and water is somebody else’s problem, usually the town or city. Up here, there is really no 911, not for the police, not for emergency repairs. We chose not to stay there, and neither of us regret it.

I have worked hard to build a network of good people I can call, but sometimes that fails, as almost happened here. I was more anxious about this than I usually get because the consequences of losing water at this time of year with a huge storm and arctic air coming would have been serious. And we’re not out of the woods yet.

It’s important to keep perspective when something like this happens. It’s exercise for the soul. We learn to be strong, resilient and hopeful. I’m betting Jay will go out shortly – he is a man of few words – and come back with a pump and we will have water.

That’s my prediction and I’m sticking with it?

And what are the odds of finding a man like Jay Bridge in my little town, an engineer, a geologist, a gifted carpenter?

He doesn’t need to be replacing water pumps in cold basements. He loves his work, and he loves to help people. That is a blessed man. I’ve offered to bring Red to his farm to help his new puppy, an English herding dog, deal with sheep.

I have things to offer too, and life, in a sense, is a kind of barter. More later.

17 January

Grateful For…

by Jon Katz

(Windowsill Gallery, Sunrise)

I’m grateful this morning for our two wood stoves, and for the portable heater in my study.

I’m grateful to be healthy, a good friend has just discovered her cancer has returned.

I’m grateful for the stream that runs behind the house, we can haul buckets up for the animals, and for our bathroom.

I’m grateful not to be in the awful position of our federal workers, pawns in the ever expanding political polarization and moral bankruptcy of our civic leaders. I think of them in this harsh winter, worrying about paying their bills. Our country is becoming amoral and aspiritual. It is just wrong to treat innocent people in this way. When you can’t pay your bills,  will they have enough heat?

The wood stoves are working hard to keep us comfortable, we could surely use the extra hot water heat, but we are battle-hardened country people now, the challenge is to handle the hard days. No shower, no toilet flushing, no washing dishes, no laundry. Our own odd little shutdown.

I was up half the night worrying about our farm and our animals, we have lost all water, and it is potent reminder of how dependent we have become on the conveniences we have grown up on. My grandmother didn’t have running water for the first 20 years of her life, she could  hardly believe how much easier life in America was than life in Russia.

Here are some ways you can help the federal workers during the shutdown. I believe what it is happening to them is an outrage, both to them, and to us.

I’ve tried three different plumbers, one won’t work on point wells, another is going to Mexico on Monday and won’t take on any work now, a third if busy laying floors in a renovated building. A fourth said he’s not available until the end of next week.

Early this morning, I texted our friend Jay Bridge, a retired engineer who takes on repair and carpentry projects. He does amazing work and he’s agreed to come over to the farmhouse to see if he can help. It looks like the pump on our point well gave out, it is about 40 years old, I see.

Jay is careful, thoughtful and extremely knowledgeable. There is not much he can’t or won’t fix. If  he cant fix this, we are in trouble and will need to think of digging a new well. That would take a while.

I’ll know more this morning, Now that it’s daylight and I can take some action, I feel better. Maria is a trooper, hauling buckets from our stream to the bathroom, cheering me up. For some reason, this makes me feel vulnerable, especially with a massive snowstorm and frigid  weather coming. It was 7 degrees when we went out this morning.

I’ve been through too many farm crises to count. There is always a way to get by, there is always someone who can help. I think I’ve got the right one in Jay. I was over at the Mansion this morning checking on the repair work, looks like the residents will come back next week.

Today, my mission is to get some new DVD’s for the residents who stayed behind at the Mansion, they are bored senseless watching the same movies day after day. I’m going to Wal-Mart to buy a bag full.

If you want to help the Mansion residents through this very challenging time – this crisis is going on longer than we thought – you can contribute via Paypal, or by mail: Jon Katz, Mansion Fund, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. You can also make a one-time donation in any amount by hitting the “Support The Army Of Good” blog at the bottom of this post. All major credit cards accepted.

There is more work to do, and thanks.

16 January

Water’s Out

by Jon Katz

Well, the next few days should be exciting, our water just stopped running. We have an old point well and we think the pump just died, but we aren’t really sure and we haven’t yet found a plumber who has responded. We are expecting a huge storm in a day or so and sub-zero arctic weather, so it should be exciting.

As of now, we have no water for us or for the animals, we are heading out to our fresh water creek to try to haul some water in for the bathroom and the animals. Lots of plumbers won’t work on old point wells, we hope one of them will call us tonight.

We have two wood stoves but the farmhouse is heated with hot water. This will be interesting. Yes, I’m a bit nervous.

This is when country life on a farm gets exciting.

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