14 April

Recovery Journal, Nine Months: Back To The Path. To The Bright Side of The Road

by Jon Katz
Recovery Journal: Nine Months
Recovery Journal: Nine Months

We’ll be lovers once again, on the bright side of the road. – Van Morrison, Bright Side Of The Road.

The last time I walked up this hill in the deep woods – Crystal Hill – was the last week of June, 2014  we walked with Lenore and Frieda and Red, Maria stooped down here and there and looked for crystals in the dirt.  Red and Lenore chased each other through the woods, Lenore loved to tear through the water and the mud, Frieda sat by Maria while she dug in the dirt, looked for tiny sparkles in the sun.

I remember it was a warm day, the mosquitoes were out, the forest canopy was thick, the path was mostly in shadow, the sun sparkled through the forest in bursts of light and motion. I was having trouble breathing, it was  hard getting up this gentle hill, I had walked it a hundred times, I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. Something is wrong with me, I told myself, I know it. It was the dark side of the road for me.

Something was wrong with me, I understood that. I was exhausted, my feet felt like they had concrete blocks attached, I was sweating and wheezing. I have always loved to walk, I thought my heart would break if I can’t walk anymore. And it was breaking in a different way. I had betrayed my heart, and it was trying to warn me, to get me to pay attention. A few days later, thanks to a dedicated nurse, I did pay attention, and I had open heart surgery on July 1.

Today was the first time I have returned to the path since that day in June. I was in recovery for months, and then the awful winter made a trek there unthinkable. And I think I was afraid to go back. Painful memories, and what if things were no better?

And the walk did bring back my memories of the life before the surgery, and of Lenore and Frieda, who were so much a part of our walks, along with Red.  Would it still be hard to get up that hill? But I knew I had to go, I needed to go.

Today was a beautiful Spring day. There was still ice and snow down in the swamp, buds appearing in the trees. I came to the very spot where I struggled and stopped to breathe last June. The image was frozen in my mind, like a still life painting.  Maria was crouching in almost the same position, Red had paused to wait for me, as he always does, as he learned to do when my heart was failing. And so after that walk, I crossed over to the other side of life, to a different place, I brushed against death and onto the joyous and difficult work of recovery.

That image will  never leave me, it was the time before.

I felt like crying today on this path, so much life has swept around me and by me since that walk. I felt so lucky, to have Maria by my side, the Red dog, always a wonderful companion. But there was loss too, and a sense of mourning. I lost something in July, and I gained something. I can walk all over the place again, it feels so sweet. But what if it happens again?  I have always had so many fixed ideas about how I would live, how I would age, what I would do, what I wouldn’t do, how I felt about doctors, about health care, about medicine, about my choices in life.

Life, the great teacher, has it’s own ideas, and many of them run head long into mine. We try and negotiate, we try to compromise with one another, treat each other with respect and dignity. But I am the student, life is the master.

I have held onto many of my ideas – I do not live a life of security, I do not live for retirement, I do not have any money in the bank, or valuable property to sell or IRA’s or bonds. I have a life I love, a partner I love, work I love. That is, I think my security, a compact Maria and I have sworn to keep with one another. I have given up on many of my ideas and conceits – I see doctors all the time, I take pills every day, I walk and walk and walk. But I have not surrendered my identity, I am still me. My heart and I are on good terms, we now take care of one another.

I will perhaps never know how hard it was for Maria to see me brush so close to death, to watch while I underwent that surgery and to care for  me so lovingly and faithfully for so long and so well. it’s still hard for her to talk about it. I know what it was like for me, I can only imagine what it was like for her. And I didn’t have to look at me in the ICU, tubes and lines and masks and beeping machines everywhere.

Today was a peaceful walk, I was grateful for every step. I sailed over that hill, I didn’t even think about it, my heart didn’t waver.

I was sad for some reason, I had a sense of loss I could not quite identify, a feeling of melancholy and loneliness, I listened to the wind whistling softly through the trees. I stood for a moment, Red watching me, Maria pick carefully through the leaves and dirt.  The frogs were out, grumbling and peeping. Just a few mosquitoes.  I remembered listening to a Van Morrison song the morning of my surgery, Bright Side Of The Road, one of my favorites – I attached my earbuds to my Iphone and I was wheeled down a long corridor, many twists and turns, the nurses trying to get me to laugh,  every person I met asking me what my birthdate was, spell your name, spell your name.

Maria and I did not speak, we did not say goodbye or make speeches to one another, it would have been too fraught, we did not need words, we each knew what the other was feeling. I could not make any promises to her.

As I pulled away from her, she let go of my hand, blew me a kiss, and I waved back, I turned on Van Morrison, I sang softly to her, although she could no longer hear me:

From the dark end of the road, to the bright side of the street. We’ll be lovers once again.

And that is what I sang again, this morning, to myself, on our path in the deep woods. It was the only truth that really mattered, deep upon this path to Divine recovery.

14 April

Reinforcements For Red. Donkey Herding.

by Jon Katz
Reinforcements For Red
Reinforcements For Red

Red got some reinforcements today when we went out to feed the animals. Lulu decided to join in the sheep herding, it’s something donkeys do every once in awhile. I think Lulu and Fanny are endlessly fascinated by Red, and they sometimes seem to be trying to herd the sheep along with them. They are also extraordinarily intuitive and sensitive creatures, they may well have noticed or smelled his injuries or sensed his discomfort and decided to help him. You never know, animals never cease to amaze and fascinate me.

14 April

Horses, Elephants, Farmers, Dogs: Taking Us Home

by Jon Katz
Horses, Elephants, Farmers
Horses, Elephants, Farmers

It is, I think, so difficult for anyone – my self included – to look at long and deeply-held beliefs and change or reconsider. We are a defensive and arrogant species, we create a world suffused by change, but then reject and fear change when it approaches and confronts us. This has been one of the most exciting years in my writing life, this new chapter began more than a year ago when I encountered the New York Carriage Horses and was profoundly affected by their plight.

They seemed to be speaking to me loudly and clearly, pleading with me to help tell their story, as many others have been called to do. Do not forget us. Respect our work.  Do not throw us away like your trash. We belong with people, that is our purpose, our mission. If they send us away, there is no good place for us to go, we will be lost and forgotten, and so will the people we have served for so long.

The horses changed my thinking, they stirred me to work, to see for myself, to research and read, listen and learn.  They gave me and my mind the great gift of changing, of seeing the world anew, of learning and growing.

They entered my life in a marked and profound way – Maria’s also – and they are changing it. They are bringing me home to a great awakening, and a realization about my purpose, my life as a writer, my place in the world of animals, my connection to Mother Earth, what it means to be a human being.

An amazing man, a Native-American Chief named Avrol Looking Horse read my blog and asked to meet me and we sat in Central Park one warm afternoon and he told me the horses had prayed for me to speak for them, he told me to accept the fact that they are speaking to you.

So I put my paid work aside, and devoted my year to answering their call. I do not regret it.   Many people were upset that I was defending the carriage trade. No, no,  they said. You are wrong, you are being brain-washed. The horses are depressed, they are mistreated, they are enslaved and exploited. Set them free. Many people were angry with me, some refused to read my blog, buy my books, they canceled their subscriptions to www.bedlamfarm.com.

Then, earlier this month, I heard from elephant trainers all over the world, touching and powerful messages,  it was very familiar to me, I got it right away. It was the same thing, again an again and again. So I wrote about the elephants in the circus, soon to lose their work and protection and connection to human beings. People were upset with me again, some canceled their subscriptions, some were outraged. How could I defend the exploitation of these wonderful, sensitive animals, demanded one, reduced to doing stupid tricks to humans when they should be living in the wild?

Then, I wrote about the arrest of Joshua Rockwood, a young farmer in Greenville, N.Y. on charges of animal cruelty and abuse, and I defended him and urged people to support him, which so many did. People were once again, angry with me. Some put up their own Facebook page to ban me from writing about animals. One of the carriage horse groups on Facebook refused to admit me as a member, they said they don’t take people from the “media.”

But that is only part of the story.  There was much anger, even some hate in my world this past year, but a powerful and touching response. People thanked me for challenging them to think about it, some were sure, some were not sure, but the most wonderful messages I ever  receive begin with “thanks for getting me to think. I see it differently now.” And I get them every day, I am far from being alone.

The traffic into my blog increased dramatically, by nearly half. I’ve gotten hundreds, if not thousands of messages from farmers, horse lovers, animal lovers, elephant trainers thanking me for my work. Piece after piece went viral, shared by thousands of people. All kinds of new voices coming into my consciousness, informing me, teaching me, learning from me. My blog subscriptions increased. I was not, in fact, expressing an isolated and disconnected opinion, I was actually quite late to it. Many people have been feeling it for some time.

I need to be careful and thoughtful and honest. I don’t wish to demonize others to protest the dehumanizing of some.  In the polarized world of America, take care, you can easily become what you dislike.

Just as I heard from the elephant trainers, and learned that not all elephants have been mistreated, so have I heard from some corporate farmers and learned that not all corporate farms are equally cruel. Some work hard to be as humane as possible. The lesson of the horses for me is to learn how to save animals and keep them in or world without harming or hating  people. You cannot hate human beings and love animals, they are inextricably linked.

But I never had the sense that I was out of touch, rather that I was getting in touch. The best ideas are not the ones no one has considered, but the ones that everyone has considered. Animal lovers wish to keep animals in our world.

So many people had already seen what I was coming to see, already felt it, it seemed as if my writing was connecting with people in a new and remarkable way.  Every morning, I said down to work on my book and the horses came into my head and said, not yet, there is more to find out, more to research, more to say.

This excited me, opened me up, reaffirmed my sense of self as a writer, drew me into this vanishing world of animals, helped me see the urgency of keeping them in our every day lives, not sending them away. Pamela Moshimer-Rickenbach, one of the founders and spirits behind Blue Star Equiculture, the mystical horse sanctuary in Palmer, Mass., talked to me about the horses, about what we owe them. She is a mystic, I am an affected by her words. This morning she wrote a beautiful and inspiring piece about what animals mean to us, why it is so important that we not turn these amazing creatures into one more disposable thing, as we have done to so much of the earth, even the very soil and air and water we depend on.

The animals are not many things, they are one thing. The carriage horses and the elephants  and the working dogs and ponies and goats and chickens are not different things, they are the same things. Each now has their own story: they are enslaved, mistreated, yearning to be free. Except that is only a tiny part of their story, it is not their story, it is our story, and we have bought it. That is the key that opens the lock to understanding the future of animals in our world, and our obligations to them.

If their lives need to be improved and made safer – this is the true story of the carriage horses – then we are bound to do it.  Taking them away from people forever is just another kind of abuse, another kind of slaughter, another kind of genocide. When any animal is banned rather than saved, a human being, a way of life, a tradition and connection perishes with it. What will we say to our children and grand-children when the animals are all gone? Banishing them from our everyday lives is a sin, a crime, a violation of our sacred contract with them and with Mother Earth. We need them to be with us, they need us to be with them.

These animals have been working with people since the beginning of time, they do not need to be saved from us, they need to be made safe and meaningful among us. It is not a crime for animals to work. It is not a crime for animals to be owned by people who can be held responsible for them. It is not a crime for animals to entertain and uplift human beings, as they have been doing for thousands of years. We have never been in more need of it.

We have lost contact with them, broken our contract and lost faith in them. The carriage horses and the elephants and the sled dogs and ponies and pigs call to us to honor our word, re-connect with them and the earth they represent. To come home.

I think of the day when every animal lover in the world awakens and the cloud of anger and hate and dogma lifts and we acknowledge what we have done to them and their world and the earth and we stop doing it – now. That is what each of us can do, every animal saved is an affirmation of our lives as well as theirs.

We are responsible for their plight, not the carriage drivers, or the pony ride operators or the circuses, we destroyed their place, the only place for them now is with us. That is what means to love animals in our time. That is what it means to come home.

14 April

Back To Work: Liam’s Challenge

by Jon Katz
Liam's Challenge
Liam’s Challenge

Red went back to work today with a purpose. I think he was hurting and a bit in shock yesterday, his visit with Scott Carrino (see below) was a powerful healing experience. Liam, I think, sensed Red’s confusion and distraction, and came running towards him this morning, trying to get to Maria and the donkeys. Definitely a challenge.

Red is back, and then some. He got right in Liam’s face and turned him around. Red is such a kind and gentle creature, at least outside the pasture. Each morning I have to get drops and ointments into his painful eye, and he sits quietly while I do it. He was himself this morning, I was happy to see it. Liam saw it, also, he turned and ran for the flock. He was not getting past Red today.

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