On sunny days in winter, Minnie goes outside. Flo hunts in the pasture, Minnie loves to sit on Maria’s Rapunzel Chair. Sometimes the hens sit up there. Maria was at the first Bedlam Farm when Minnie, a feral kit found under the porch of an old house, came to live on our big barn.
She grew up with chickens and donkeys, she loves to sit with the chickens. She loves to be held by Maria, the two talk to one another all the time.
For much of my adult life, I’ve been working and struggling and failing to understand what a true creative community is and how it works. Some of my failures have been painful and spectacular, and two or three of have been exhilarating and successful.
I have learned a number of things about creative communities, I started working on them decades ago, online and off.
First, they must be composed of people for whom creativity is a passion, not a social gathering point.
Second, they must not become therapy groups or political associations, even though they may often be helpful and have passionate values.
Third, creativity – especially writing – cannot be taught in four-week sessions or two-day workshops. My writing group is entering its third year, and it may go on for several more – that is up to the students more than me. The more we get to know and trust one another, the better and more powerful their work becomes.
Four of my students are working on books now, three have been published, one is germinating.
Fourth, people must take their own time, not my time. Some of the best and most gifted poets and writers in the class have been working at it for several years, and the timetable for development must be theirs, not mine. I can push and cajole and encourage, but must not ever badger or bully.
Fifth, it is a generalization that it is most often true that many women have been discouraged, intimidated, shut down or ignored by men – spouses, fathers, teachers, brothers, bosses.
Sixth, true connection and understanding can not come for me purely through digital communications like social media. Sometimes, we need to see and talk with one another for there to be genuine understanding and trust. True understanding comes from deeper places.
Emerging voices in women is often threatening to men, this comes up in my teaching all the time. Women, who have, I have come to see, almost universally experienced one form of abuse or another, share this experience, increasingly, more and more openly. And as it happens, all of my students are now women.
Today, in the class, we have an intense but very valuable and meaningful discussion about a story that dealt with issues of abuse and sexual harassment by an older man on a younger women. I thought the story was being politicized and losing its lyrical magic, that it was becoming a sermon, not a creative work.
Almost everyone in the class disagreed, and I am very proud of the fact that they all feel comfortable doing that.
I was the only man in the room – that is not always comfortable, but much more comfortable than being in a room full of men – and some in the class said that I could not possibly understand what it meant to be a women and experience the predatory and inappropriate behaviors of men.
I couldn’t say out loud that I was the victim of extreme and violent sexual abuse and was in treatment for it for much of my life. It isn’t something I can yet say out loud, I can barely talk about it with Maria, or write about it, nor is it truly relevant to the teaching of writing, yet I very much understand it, and am beginning to see that this informs my idea of teaching and my connection to the class in ways I do not fully understand.
I mention it only because I have to practice what I preach, creativity requires authenticity, even bravery. You have to come to terms with what you fear, sometimes run towards it, not away from it. I hope I get there one day, it’s getting late.
For creativity is so closed linked to empathy, suffering and a kind of coming out. This, in a sense, is more important to teach than the mechanics of language and writing. Our voices are important, sacred, no one should ever shut them down or silence them or make us feel small about them.
It is never my place to focus my teaching on what people don’t do or do wrong, it is always my place to focus my teaching on what my students do well and wish to do. It has to ultimately come from them, not from me. I suppose my own therapy has helped me to see this way of teaching, to form this idea of a creative community.
And it is not that I am shy when it doesn’t work, I can’t have students in my class who don’t belong there or feel at ease, for their sake or mine. In this community, we have stood by one another, committed to one another. Hard for me, for some of them. Impossible for others.
Today, one of my most remarkable students, Rachel Barlow, a painter and illustrator and writer, brought some watercolors to class to ask the other students which one she should hang in an upcoming show this week at the Spiral Press at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.
I was deeply touched when all of the students gathered around her to give their ideas, wish her well and offer her encouragement and towards the end, Caroline Ashton, a writer and poet in my class, leaned over to give Rachel a hug. The affection and support were so palpable you could touch them.
There it was, I thought, the creative community come to life. Perhaps I am getting closer.
Last night, I was invited to watch a rehearsal of The Farming Plays Project, a powerful and moving series of monologues about farm life, performed by high school students from small farm families here in my rural and still agricultural community.
The Hubbard Hall Arts and Education Center, a crown jewel in our small town, is producing the play, part of its Winter Festival of New Works, presented every January. Hubbard Hall Director David Snider approached farmers and student members of farm families at schools in Greenwich, Cambridge, Hoosick Falls to write about the life and struggles and realities of farmers in America.
The students have done a remarkable job of capturing farm life, it’s joys and frustrations, from the inside out. There is a lot of emotion and feeling in this performance. The first show is next Saturday, the 21st, Maria and I are going, we’ve invited the Carol and Ed Gulley and some other farm friends as well.
I know that most of the people reading this life too far away to see this new and innovative production, but I wanted to share it with you, it is a story that needs to be told.
It is very rare for the arts – for anyone – to write about the lives of small family farmers and farms, they are declining all across America. In the performance we hear farmer’s voices speaking in their own words about family, money, animals, and the future of the farm.
It is perhaps to late to save the iconic small American Family Farm, under siege from regulators, legislators, animal rights activists and corporate agricultural competitors, and from ungrateful and unknowing food consumers.
It is not too late to explore their lives, celebrate what they have done, and remember them while they are still among us. They are among the world’s hardest working, most family-centered, animal loving and necessary human beings.
They are also in big trouble, threatened on all sides by forces much more powerful than they are.
The Farming Plays Project has succeeded in their blunt and imaginative presentation of different farm voices. And these are kids who are living it, these stories and words are so natural coming out of their mouths.
Since World War II, the governing agricultural doctrine in government, universities, banking and financial institutions, state legislatures, universities and corporations has been that there are too many people on the farm, and that family farms are too small to compete effectively in the new global economy.
Our economists and politicians constantly remind us that the world is changing, and many of us must suffer. They forget to ask themselves: what are people for?
This idea has supported, if not directly caused one of the most significant and consequential migrations in American history as tens of millions of rural people have moved from country to city in a steady flow that continues to this day. In the old and presumably outdated economy, children stayed on their family farms and took them over when their parents were too old or sick.
In the new economy, the young are shuffled to overcrowded and expensive cities, where they work to make a living, not a life.
This migration of money, jobs, children, people and governmental support has brought about widespread economic ruin to farm and rural communities. The economists have said for decades, and say still, that farmers deserve to fail because they are the least efficient producers of food now, and that the rest of the population is benefiting from their failure by lower costs, corporate competitors and globalized agricultural systems.
If you are not a farmer, it is easy enough to yawn and look away at the decline of the family farm. Why should we care?
We should and one day, we will.
There is plenty of good on the grocery store shelves, even if you have no idea what is in it, where it comes from, or how the animals and people who produced it have been treated.
As a result of the country’s abandonment of rural America, rural towns and communities have been devastated, losing their jobs to box stores and foreign countries, to corporate farming, to their children to jobs they hate far away working for people who care nothing for them, and their downtowns and Main Streets to economic starvation and collapse.
In a sense, the economists have made their forecasts come true – Main Street is no longer considered efficient or relevant in the new global order. The jobs and the money have all migrated to the cities with the young.
No presidential candidate in any debate mentioned the fate of the future of farmers or vowed to pursue any legislation or program meant to help them.
The ensemble actors at the Farm Players Project give voice and context to this ongoing tragedy.
Every farm is not dying, but every farm is drama. There is no simple or easy way to farm, and farmers and their families live intense, exhilarating, draining and exhausting lives.
All of this is beautifully captured and portrayed by the young actors in the Farm Players Project. And the tickets cost $10, less for students.
For those of you who live nearby, I’d urge you to consider coming to see this original and long overdue recognition of the important of farmers in our lives. We need to start remembering. Perhaps the rest of you will think about the family farm, perhaps encourage your local theater groups to consider the same kind of project.
Farmers are not the best talkers in the world, but they have the best stories to tell, and some of the most important. One day, in the shadow of the Corporate Nation, the small farms will be gone, and I hope I never forget to remember them. You can purchase tickets here, there will be several performances over the next week or so.
Fate definitely has a pirate look when she is up to no good. On the path in the woods, she tore after a chipmunk and then came around and popped out in the path on front of Red, daring him to chase after her. He did, she was ready. She gave him the pirate eye.