31 August

Understanding Friendship

by Jon Katz

If I were to use one word to characterize much of my life, it would be aloneness.

I was never able to make friends, comfortable making friends, or able to keep friends. If I didn’t run a way from friends, friendships ran away from me. I did not have a single friend in childhood, nor a lasting one in my adult life. Close relationships – any kind of intimacy or closeness – made my intensely uncomfortable and still do, in many ways.

In recent years, I got serious about healing myself and understanding myself and several wonderful therapists and spiritual counselors – and my own hard and determined work – helped me to open up to closeness. The dogs kept the door open for me, then Maria and I found one another, I can say honestly she was the first person apart from my daughter and my sister that I have ever permitted to stay close to me, or who I never gave up on. Maria was surely the first truly intimate relationship of my life, we are both friends and lovers.

I love my life, I do not complain about it, but sometimes it is unbearable for me to look back on my life and not shudder at how sick I was for so much of it.

Relationships are no longer terrifying to me – the first Bedlam Farm was a castle with a moat in many ways – but they are not simple. West Hebron is a good place to go if you want to be alone and unapproachable, and yet it was there I met a person to finally love.

Perhaps because of that, and for the first time in my life, I have one or two friendships that are close and that I have begun to trust and accept. I am wary of them also, I  have learned that men run from friendships, find reasons to break them off, put them aside when life becomes complex. I don’t really trust men either.

I was getting close to Paul Moshimer, I thought we might be lasting friends, that was not to be. He and Scott Carrino and I formed a Fabulous Old Men’s Club, it reinforced my wariness of men and friendships. It seems I did not know Paul well at all.

I told Maria that my friendship with Scott Carrino is perhaps the most serious and honest friendship I have had with a man. I hope it lasts the rest of my life, yet he and I are both complex, and in some ways, volatile people, and I would be reluctant to predict the future, I suspect there are many broken relationships in both of our past lives.

I have a fear of closeness that will always be a part of me, perhaps an attachment disorder, which would hardly be surprising given my shattered family. I could not ever learn how to attach to people in that awful maelstrom of anger, abuse and fear. I am exhausted just writing about this, which is why I need to do it.

I am 68 now, getting to be old, and there is a voice inside of me that says “don’t screw around, you don’t really have the time for it any more.” I will be authentic, or die trying. And I might just die anyway. I have nothing to lose, nothing to hide, a sacred space.

I am in touch with no one in my original family apart from my sister, no one in my family of marriage apart from my daughter, no one in my life farther back than four or five years. No one. Not from college, from work, from the 20 different places I have lived. That is a profound kind of aloneness that was inviolate and impenetrable for me – it was my very identity –  until Maria burst through the walls without firing a shot. I am most at ease being alone, it my natural state, my default position.

In one way or another, I have felt betrayed by almost every friend I have ever had. I remember just a few years ago, when I got divorced, broke down on my mountain, went to pieces, every friend I had in the world vanished and ran away from me, I was just too much to bear I think. Maria saved my life, and not figuratively.

Love is powerful, it can break through the thickest walls.

As I move through this next phase of my life, I am thinking about friendship, how to keep those doors open, the castle gates unlocked. I am open to the world, vulnerable yet stronger than ever. I am liking myself these days, but I know i need to keep changing, keep the hinges oiled. I need to know how to work through problems rather than storm away from them, how to accept rather than judge, how to let go of the past, rather than live it again and again.

I often talk to the five-year-old me, shaking in terror in his pitch-black attic room, waiting for the footsteps on the stairs, and I tell him it turned out all right, we got the girl, we made it to the other side. He didn’t even know what a friend was.

I have learned a lot, about relationships, about boundaries. Boundaries are the foundation of friendship, it’s glue and nourishment.

I do not put past troubles on my friends, they do not matter anymore. I do not try to save my friends, they must save themselves. I will not accept friendships that are one-way, we must care about one another. I am not seeking to be a savior, but a friend. I am not a therapist, but a sympathetic ear.  I hope my friends help me if I am in trouble, but I do not look to my friends to soothe me or be my guru, I have learned how to soothe myself and be my own guru.

Being older means learning something, understanding something, viewing the world with perspective and humor.

I am not here to tell them what to do, to mother them or harass them into living my kind of life. Friendship is about trust and acceptance as much as anything. But I have been alone for more than six decades, that is a lot of change to accommodate. Yet I have. Maria challenged me to change in profound ways. So have my new friendships.

I think I began to trust my friend Scott after my open  heart surgery. He appeared at the door regularly without being asked, and came with food. He is a busy man, but he found the time to come.  He came once or twice a week to sit with me in my shock and bewilderment. I suppose you are never more alone than when you wake up after they take your heart out and stop it, and then put it back. If feels as if your very soul had vanished.

Scott was just there. I didn’t ask, he didn’t ask, he just was a presence. It mattered. Not too many people know how to do that, not week after week.

Scott and I are honest with one another, I see. We worry about each other, but not in an oppressive way. We support one another but we don’t take over one another, or try to. We each do some things the other person would not do and does not like, but we accept each other as we are. We can not solve one another’s problems, it would be unhealthy to try.

Still, I get wary of it sometimes. I get wary of everything sometimes except my wife. When I get the impulse to run away or withdraw back into my other self, I recognize it as my flaw, as a symptom. I am tired of running away from friends. I talk about how I feel, I always ask myself if I am being honest, and if I am not, or can’t be, then the friendship is no good. So far, so good.  I don’t have enough time left to make and lose friends. Maria has opened me to love and trust and new experience, she has given me a great gift. I hope I have done the same for her. That is something to build on.

I know I am not the kind of person to have many friends, nor do I want many friends. I don’t love everybody as Maria does, and everybody does not love me.  One or two good friends would be fine. I am very close to accepting that. I also know that with men, friendship is a difficult and troubling story. The women I know seem to gravitate naturally to friendship, they turn to one another when life gets intense. Men tend to run the other way when life gets intense.

My new friends have not run away from me, nor me from them, and life has been intense. So I am letting go of the past and embracing the present. It is, as they say, what it is. It will be what it will be. I cannot control the suffering of the work, I can only make a joyful noise.

One day at a time. The motto of every broken human being trying to put the pieces back together.

31 August

On Main Street, Community Lives

by Jon Katz
On Main Street, Community Lives
On Main Street, Community Lives

This beautiful block on Main Street is the heart of our town, which has less than 2,000 people in it, a rich mix of farmers, working people, nurses, artists, writers and laborers.  There are two restaurants on this block, the Cambridge Diner on the left, the Round House Cafe in the old bank on the far right. In between is the Battenkill Books Store, the Over The Moon Bead Shop, a real estate office, the Hubbard Hall Opera House and Arts And Education Center, an artisans shop, The Hubbard Hall gift store, an antique dealer.

Community lives on this block, it is a beautiful and defiant block, it has seen awful times and good times, it has been preserved, restored, argued over, re-imagined. Rural communities have been abandoned all over America by greedy and soulless corporations, arrogant bureaucrats, feckless politicians and economists who have forgotten what people are for.

This block is a triumph of community and of the human spirit, it perseveres, it does better than that. It was exhilarating to stand there with my camera and look at it. We have lost a pharmacy, I thought, but look what we have gained.

31 August

A Funeral, A Celebration. O’Hearn’s Closes On Thursday.

by Jon Katz
A Funeral, A Celebration
A Funeral, A Celebration

I stopped by O’Hearn’s Pharmacy today to check on Bridget and Margaret, they have been working side-by-side for years, they are virtually telepathic with one another, efficient, smiling, attentive. I love Margaret’s system of record-keeping, she sticks price labels on her arm all day to keep track of what has been sold. The pharmacy, which has been in operation in our town for 40 years, is closing on Wednesday.

She will be filing paperwork and sending faxes for weeks, she says.

It felt like a combination funeral and celebration at O’Hearn’s, people came in to cry, laugh, hug Bridget, thank her and Margaret, worry  about their medicines. It is an emotional roller coaster for Bridget, I could see that, she loved being a pharmacist, she had a wonderful gift for it. Some people love caring for other people.

I can’t wait to see what she does with the next chapter in her life, we are both warriors for change, it will be wonderful to see her move forward. I am okay with it, Bridget will be missed, but we are lucky to have another pharmacy in our town, life is what you make of it. I believe they will take good care of me.

I won’t speak poorly of my life. I think this photo will be my last visit to O’Hearn’s, I don’t want to be maudlin about it or overdo it. In America, we all know this kind of loss, most of the country lives in places where the very idea of Bridget is unknown and unimaginable. A young woman messaged me from California and she said she thought pharmacists like Bridget  vanished after World War II, she had never known one. Good to remember.

We are lucky to have known one. I will be hanging on to that. Bridget always talked about the art of the pharmacist, she was a true artist.

31 August

In Cambridge, N.Y., Community Lives

by Jon Katz
Community Lives
Where Community Lives


I believe there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap. I know there is safety, where we are known. In my town, community lives.

In my town this week, we are losing our independent pharmacy, the town is in mourning about that, it is a loss that cuts deep.

But I have to say that community lives here, and will continue to live. We are known to one another here, whether we like one another or not. I don’t care to live in a place where we don’t look out for each other. Not just the people we know, who are close to us, but anybody who finds themselves alone, frightened, or in need. I cannot change the way anybody else sees things, I cannot tell anyone else what to believe, but I can do my part to support my community, and be a part of it. It took me a lifetime to learn that.

Some people in my community like me, some find me strange and I know I make some uncomfortable. But I am known, and I am tolerated, I know that community is what we all seek, in one way or another.  I know we are all alike in so many ways, as different as we are.

Today Bridget and Margaret were under siege in their doomed pharmacy, people pouring in to say goodbye, bring presents, offer thanks, remark on a changing world, to shed some tears with her. We aren’t moving away, Bridget said over and over again. We will still be here.

Maria loves going to the Post Office, she and Wendy are friends, they know one another. When I went to the post office one day to buy stamps for Maria, Wendy gently reminded me that Maria preferred stamps with animals or plants. I didn’t know that.

They laugh, talk, share a bit of their lives with one another. Community lives in our post office.

A month ago, a tree blew down in our back yard. I come from a world where men and women are helpless, we have to call other people to take care of our own lives. In my town, different men in pickup- trucks pulled into the driveway for days asking me if I needed help, if I wanted help taking the tree down.  I am going to call somebody, I kept saying, pridefully. You don’t need to do that, the men told me, we all  have chainsaws.

My friend Ed Gulley, the dairy farmer is doing it this weekend.

At the Over The Moon Bead Shop, Heather is often found sitting on the sidewalk, reading a book. She calls me over and tells me when she gets the colorful socks that Maria loves, and that I like to buy for her, since she will never buy anything for herself.

A week ago, at the Round House, people came from all over the country to share the songs they had written, their poetry, to stand up in front of other people and share their creativity. Community is what the Round House is all about, we see one another there, we know one another.

When Simon died of a stroke in our back yard, and we were stunned, our yard filled up with neighbors and friends, they sat with us, helped us move the body, helped us bury it. No one would take any money for anything.

At the Moses Farm Stand where I go to buy corn and vegetables,  Judy, an artist who works there in the summer, offers me her pass to the Clark Museum when I tell her we want to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the museum. I just met Judy this summer, I only see her when I buy vegetables, I hardly know her, but she knows who I am. How generous an offer, we don’t need to take it, but it feels good to be offered it.

At Battenkill Books, our local bookstore, the store was closed today, Connie Brooks is renovating, she is opening up a children’s book section at the end of the store, she is growing and expanding at a time when bookstores are supposed to be dying and closing. She is a victory for community. She won an award to help her improve the store.  Our community supports Connie’s store, they support the idea of books and individuality. We wondered if she could survive the new world, it seems she can.

At Hubbard Hall, the old Opera House in the middle of town, kids gather there every day to sing, dance and put on their plays. it is a community supported arts center, the community saved the old Opera House and maintains it still. Local people volunteer there, sell tickets, design sets, act in plays. Put on operas.

My dentist’s office called the other day to remind me of an appointment, we look forward to seeing you, they said, and don’t forget to bring Red. Don’t come in without him.

A farmer friend comes over with his nephew and a hundred bales of second cut hay at a very good price. Pay when you can, he says (I wrote a check), we know where to find you. I’ll drop off some firewood.

At the Cambridge Diner, the old-timers and the townspeople gather every day before work to have breakfast. At Stewart’s convenience stores, the workmen gather in their trucks to get their coffee and grunt and grumble with one another. I do not go there, I would not know what to say to these big men, but they never fail to stop every day and talk to one another.

At the gym last week, a woman came up to me and said she would love to meet Fate one day, she has been watching her progress on the blog, and could she bring her mother, who misses her border collie so much, she died some years ago. Of course, I said, bring her by.

At the Round House Cafe, Maria meets every week with the good witches, her friends. They laugh and smile and cry together, there is a halo of white light over them.

Last year, the farmhouse needed some serious work, we were short on cash, the bill was going to be bigger than we expected, it might take a week or so to pay you, I said to the carpenter. No sweat, he said, I know where you live. Pay when you can.

So we are losing Bridget’s pharmacy this week, but we are not losing our community.

Community is fragile, the world changes, we are not immune to it.

But community lives in my town, and I do not believe it can ever be taken away.  It is organic, it rises and falls, retreats and regroups. It does not go away. We are committed to it, we will fight for it. All over the country, people struggle to be known, they struggle with not being known. We are known.

The politicians and economists have pummeled and abandoned and robbed and raped rural communities for generations now, taking away jobs and resources, steering people to the cities and suburbs far from nature and the land, to jobs they hate working for people who care nothing about them.  The small businessperson and the individual fight to survive in our impersonal and fragmented Corporate Nation.

We are making our stand here.

Try as they might, they can’t kill community in my town. We still remember what people are for.

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