10 September

The Chronicles Of Grief: “I Know You’ll Understand.”

by Jon Katz
The Chronicles Of Grief
The Chronicles Of Grief

Because I live with animals and write about them, I think, it happens that people who are grieving intensely over their lost dogs and cats – sometimes horses – see me as a kindred spirit. They often contact me to tell me they can’t stop mourning their pets, can’t bear to get another one, can’t move on from their loss and grief.

Grieving for animals, as it is for people, is personal thing, it is not for me to ever tell anyone how to grieve for a person or animal they lost. We all have to do it in our own way. But the truth is, I generally do not  understand that kind of grieving, and I often wonder why so many people assume that I do.

I wrote a book about animal grieving called “Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die,” and the book was, in many ways, an argument for perspective, for grieving moving on, and then availing ourselves of the miracle of animals like dogs and cats and horses – you can do it again. A lot of distinguished psychologists and psychiatrists cautioned me that extreme grieving for animals is often a reflection of other losses in life, not just the animals.

I understood what they were telling me. When people we love die, they can never be replaced. But I can get another dog and cat, and this is a miracle to me. If I love one, I can love another. This is preferable to me to grieving, although that is always an individual thing. I always remember that there are millions of animals out there in need of us in shelters,  lots of Fates and Reds waiting for  homes, So many are languishing in one of the cruelest creations on the well-paved road to animal Hell, no-kill shelters.

People read the book and then often message me, speaking of their devastation, their depression, their pain and suffering, quite often in great detail, almost always saying the know I will understand, when the truth is, I almost never really do.

I am sorry to see anyone in pain, I  hope I possess the great gift of empathy. But this, I know, is the problem with advice. People generally like the advice they want, they ignore the advice they don’t want. Fools never take advice, the seers say, and smart people don’t need it.

People who mourn pets for long periods are not fools, but I do not grieve for my animals in that way. A woman came up to me recently when a laminated photograph of a dead animal, she told me she has been weeping for weeks and months and cannot get past it, she was so glad to run into me, she felt free to tell me because she knew I would understand.

I kept quiet, as I always do, people do not seem to notice. I am not interested in arguing with people or challenging them about the way they grieve. We lost a lot of animals on the farm in the past year – Lenore, Frieda, and Simon. I wrote book about each one of them and loved each one very dearly, as did Maria. I cannot imagine placing that on another person, or assuming their notion of grief was the same as mine. And they never ask me about the animals I have lost. I never want to think like that,  to think that my grief is worse than anyone else’s.

In our world, we all lose things: people, dogs, cats, horses, work, dreams. Everyone has suffered more than me.

I think of myself as fortunate.

We have each other, a new pony, a new border collie puppy, a wonderful dog in Red, two dear donkeys, work that we love. Honestly, I speak only for myself, but I can’t grasp what reason I might have for staying mired in grief when I have so much to be grateful for, so much to love and care about. Lenore was not about grief, neither was Simon or Frieda. They all lived full and happy lives, Frieda and Simon suffered much along the way. My animals will never be a misery to me, always a joy and a gift.

Pope Francis, who took the name of St. Francis, a great lover of animals, is helping bring the world to a new understanding of animals.

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder,” he wrote of animals, “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”

Again, I am speaking only for me, I am not  telling anyone else what to do, I do not think I know what others should do. My lost animals do not need my grief, I do not feel the least bit sorry for myself or for them. If I love animals, which I do, I will keep them in my life, I will approach them with an openness to awe and wonder, I will speak the language of fraternity and beauty in my relationship with them. And I will not see myself as a master or exploiter of them, they do not exist to satisfy my emotional needs and desires.

I guess  if I am being honest about it, when people say they are telling me things because they know I will understand, I feel I have failed somehow as a writer because I often do not understand. How could I be so unclear about what I believe and feel? I suppose it’s an identity question for me, I learned in my life to insist on being known for who I really am, as ugly as that often is, not as how others might choose to cast me. Identity is precious, it is the key to self, no one can define me but me.

I bow my head to those in grief, I wish them healing and peace and compassion. I hope I have helped some deal with their grief and am sorry I didn’t help others. I cherish my hospice work and the brave and beautiful people – and animals – who leave the world in pride and joy and acceptance love, without lament or complaint. A beautiful thing to see, an inspiration for me to live and follow.


10 September

Crossing To Safety: Trials And Tribulations

by Jon Katz
Crossing To Safety
Crossing To Safety

My friend Jesse Dailey’s trial in New York City has been adjourned until Monday. Jesse is trying to rest up and take care of his life, which has been upended for nearly two years after his arrest on charges of sexual assault – touching three young girls inappropriately on their rear ends on the street and Brooklyn, and also for assaulting and wounding an undercover police officer who tried to question them.

Jesse has pled innocent to all of the charges and has given almost all of what he has in the world to the lawyers who are aggressively defending him. It troubled me deeply that one of the first arguments in the trial was over my book “Geeks,” the story of how Jesse got himself out of Idaho and to Chicago and through the University of Chicago mostly on the strength of character and will.

When Jesse talks of the last couple of years, it is hard for me to hear it. He worked so hard to get out of a hard life, and he was successful building a new one, now he is in the hardest part of life one cold imagine.

It is horrific for me – him, too, I am sure – to even think of all that being destroyed, of him facing branding as a sex offender and the years in prison the prosecutor is demanding if he is convicted. The more I know about the case, the more certain I am that this will not happen, that Jesse will prevail. The truth does want to be free, and I believe justice often does triumph.

I think about how much of my own ego is unconsciously involved in this  – I wrote a book about his strength and purpose, after all, and I can’t really be detached about the process. The man accused of these crimes is not the person I knew or know.

I’ve covered a lot of trials in my life as a reporter, and my instincts were pretty good, although never close to perfect. This one doesn’t feel right.

The prosecution says it wants to introduce 18 pages of my book as evidence of “prior bad acts” because there are vague references to Jesse selling fake photo ID’s in Caldwell, Idaho, 18 years ago. The judge is dubious that this says anything about Jesse’s character so many years later. The judge read the free excerpt on Amazon, but not the book, he says he is disinclined to admit this into evidence.

It’s not clear if I can be called as a character witness or not, the book was published in April of 2000. Jesse’s lawyers are not sure it is relevant now, but if the prosecution opens the door, they might just open the door for me to testify.

It is upsetting to see the book distorted, it is a celebration of Jesse’s life and to use it in this dishonest way to harm him is hard for me to handle. I’m going down there later next week – there will be days of hearings and arguments before the trial can actually begin – to testify if I can and to support Jesse in any way that I can.

I am basically a middle-class person, someone asked me this morning if I was a liberal or a conservative and I said I hope I am neither, I hope I am free to make up my own mind about problems and issues and not limit myself to two narrow ways of thinking and arguing. I hate labels, and resist having any put on me. I am very conservative about many things, I am very liberal about many other things. It’s called thinking.

I am learning this year that government has awful power to enter and destroy the lives of ordinary people, even innocent ones. All you can do is help, one person at a time, one issue at a time. I don’t generalize. There are good police officers and bad ones, good people and bad people, good trials and bad ones. I don’t want to swim in the dark stream of paranoia and conspiracy and resentment. I believe in government, it keeps our society intact, it keeps us from slipping into the Dark Ages, except when Donald Trump is opening his mouth.

Sometimes it stumbles and falls, and fortunately, I live in a country where I can write about Jesse like this and not expect to be hauled off and beaten in the morning, unless it is at the hands of an enraged protester from the far side of the moon protesting my abuse of border collies by making them work with sheep.

That is very possible, I get threats like that all the time. We live in a curious world.

Life is, as Wallace Stegner wrote in his great novel by the same name, is really about crossing to safety. We all want to cross to safety, to get ourselves and the ones we love to that mystical place of peace and security. There,  we can leave the dangers and surprises and worries of the world behind. As we get older, we learn there is no such place, the dangers and worries of the world are as much a part of life as walking and breathing. Grace does not come from a life free from trouble, it comes from a life where trouble is dealt with honestly and with honor.

Our dreams of safety seem often to collide with the true nature of life in the world. Safety, like fear, is a space to cross. We are always walking, we never arrive.

Jesse is finding grace in his long ordeal, perhaps I can find some as well. I close my eyes and see him crossing to safety, his very hard work, honesty, great heart and courage rewarded in one of life’s most challenging arenas, a criminal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y.

10 September

Out Of The Sun. Red Keeps His Cool.

by Jon Katz
Out Of The Sun
Out Of The Sun

After herding work in the hot sun, Red has figured out a new way to get cool. He lies down next to Fanny, or beneath her. This is something I would normally think would be a bad idea for a dog to do. But all the equines love Red and accept him and treat him gently.

Donkeys are guard animals, I got them to protect the sheep. They are tough as nails when challenged, they put their heads down and charge, biting, kicking and stomping. Red has always treated the donkeys well, they are at ease with one another, and this week, in the heat wave, Red just walks underneath Fanny (sometimes Lulu) to get out of the sun. It seems to work well for both of them. One working animal helping another.

10 September

Video: Working With Fate: Stay. Come Along.

by Jon Katz
Working With Fate
Working With Fate

This week, I’m working with Fate on three things: staying on command ( and holding the stay), responding to commands over widening distances and slowing down around the sheep. I started in the next pasture, getting her to stay as Maria trains Chloe. Good setting.

Fate has very powerful instincts, when she goes to work she is trembling, excited, aroused, she often requires five or six efforts to stay when told. Away from the sheep, she is responsive and focused. Around them, she is sometimes too excited. So I am putting her into stays and holding her there. She is great at responding to commands over growing distances. She is, like Red, a professional, she is always appropriate with the sheep, never inclined to harm them or use her mouth when she can try her eye.

And unlike many border collies in training, she is quick to lie down when asked. All good things. When she approaches the sheep, she circles them, sometimes this is good – if they need to be kept together – but it has to be controlled. As she gets older, she is maturing, slowing down, calming down, listening.

There are many ideologues and dogmatics – I think of them as snobs sometimes – who believe there is only way to train a dog, or one way to train a herding dog. I’m not one of those. Each working dog has their own individual style, and the job of the trainer is to find a balance, a common ground between what the dog is at ease doing and what the human or the farmer needs to be done. I’m not chasing after ribbons, I don’t care where her shoulders are pointed, I want a savvy working dog who can help us run the farm and move the sheep around.

I tell her to lie down and “stay.” Most times, she gets up when she hears the clank of the gate, and then I simply move her back to the spot where the command was given, wait a minute or two, and then tell her to “stay” again. She is getting it, this has taken a very long time and a lot of patience.

I do this calmly and continuously. I  want  Fate to love herding sheep as much as I love doing it with her.

I love watching Fate when I put Red away and see her testing the sheep, trying things out. My favorite thing.

Fate lacks only one thing for that, she is still a bit too young to command the sheep, although that is beginning to happen. For the first time, she can move around them and stop them or turn them around. She can also hold them in place. Good and important steps, but I want Fate to be Fate, not a robot dog fitting someone else’s pattern or rigid dogma. Like any dog, she does some things very well, is working on others.

Exciting and challenging stuff. I want it to be fun, for her, for me. It makes me a better human being.

I took this video of our work this morning, it shows some of the things we are working on. We’ve entered a new phase of our work, Fate is growing up, we are talking to each other very well. Come and see.

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