10 April

Grass, Grass. So Close

by Jon Katz
Spring At The Feeder

The heavy rains and now the warm sun is bringing the grass up early. In a week or so, the animals will be giving up dry hay for fresh green grass, something the sheep and the donkeys dearly love. With Chloe gone, we will not need to do as much rotational grazing, although it is good for the pasture.

Donkeys and sheep don’t graze forever, they eat and then rest. They can sniff the grass and stare longingly at the fenced in pastures. I think they will be eating grass in a week or so if it dries out and the weather stays warm for a bit. We have called the shearer and he is coming one Sunday over the next  few weeks.

I love Spring, but I am mindful of winter. I’ve already ordered firewood and will call Sandy Adams to start bringing hay in a few days.

10 April

The Second Fiber Chair Emerges In Spring. Life Of The Artist

by Jon Katz
The Second Fiber Chair

Maria spent a few hours working on the fiber chair on the first truly warm day of the Spring, and I was taken aback by it’s beauty and style. The chair was found up in the old barn, rotted away, tossed aside as junk. Maria is bringing it back to life in a way that has surprised me, she does not intend to sell it or use it, she takes the baling string from the hay and makes beautiful art in an unexpected place.

10 April

Ali, Portrait Of A Teacher:”America Is Better Than This.”

by Jon Katz
America Is Better Than This

I wanted to introduce you to someone who has entered my world, who I felt an instant connection with, who I greatly admire. His name is Amjad Abdalla Muhammed, people call him Ali. He is a big man with a kind face and a love of helping children. He is a teacher at the Refugee And Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE) in Albany.

This is where newly arrived refugees to America go for help after the come her. For day care, English classes, financial counseling and help finding work. Ali is a mentor to many children, he runs the RISSE soccer team and teaches in day care.

He has volunteered to work with me and help me tell the true story of the refugee and immigrant experience that is so vital to the American soul and tradition.

This tradition saved my family from almost certain slaughter, and thus in many ways, saved me. Ali was born in the United States. When he was one, his family moved to Egypt, they didn’t want him to lose touch with his culture and traditions.

And this tradition is my patriotic duty to defend.

When Ali was 17, he came back to live in America and is devoting himself to teaching and helping the children of refugees and immigrants who have followed him. He says he lives between these two cultures, each will always be a part of him.

He is open and gentle, and I felt an instant connection to him, his honesty and devotion to the students at the RISSE refugee facility is profound and complete. They trust him absolutely.

He refuses to be angry or bitter about the assault on the immigrant and refugee tradition underway, he sees is a temporary illness, like a winter flu.

“I love America,” he said, “America is better than this. Americans are open and generous and loving, the people who spread fear and anger are the few, not the many.”

He does not believe in hiding from the wider world, but in letting the world know the truth about the refugees and immigrants who are her and wish to come to America.

“America will come back,” he said, “it isn’t going to stay like this, this is not what America is.” I believe that, and I believe him.

We are a nation of refugees, the immigrant experience is part of our story, my story.

Ali and I made plans for the children at RISSE to come to Bedlam Farm as early as next week. Scott Carrino has volunteered Pompanuck farm and its pond and paths for them to visit. He will make some fine pizza for them at the Round House cafe and give them cookies from the bakery.

They will visit Bedlam Farm and see the donkeys and watch the dogs work. Many of the refugee families come from farms and rural backgrounds and I will ask Ed and Carol Gulley to give them a tour of their wonderful dairy farm, a virtual Farm Disney World.

Ali is beside himself with excitement about these trips. “It is just what we need,” he says. “They need to see the country, the animals.”

I offered the farm as a summer retreat for these children, stuck in a big urban city through the summer. What a gift to us, he said. What a gift to me, I said. Maria feels the same way.

My mission is to get to know the refugees, children and adults. To photograph them, visit them in their homes,  write about their lives and struggles. “They did not come her to hurt anyone,” he said. “There are bad apples in every group, it is part of life. There is nothing to fear from them.”

That is my mission and message also, in addition to my writings about my life and the animals and the farm. I  hope Ali and I can become friends, perhaps we already have. I hope I can help him and them when I can.

Ali  is a very good and admirable man, already an inspiration to me in just a few meetings. Such selflessness is rare, I have met few people in my life who can step so completely outside of themselves and think only of others. I meet a lot of people who talk about doing good, not so many who simply do good, every day of their lives.

I think Ali is such a man. We will meet again on Wednesday at the RISSE day care school. I hope to see those 80 art kits in use.

10 April

The Wolf Drawing Of Sakler Moo, A Refugee Child

by Jon Katz
The Drawings of Sakler Moo

I met Sakler Moo last week at the Refugee And Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE) in Albany, N.Y., and the first thing I heard about him from his teachers and friends and the staff at RISSE, was how gifted an artist he is. I am not a painter or trained artist but I was struck by the detail and feeling of the few drawings he had on hand to show me.

I was struck by his friends, who gathered around me to praise his art and tell me how talented he was. That is not always something young boys appreciate in other young boys. The kids at RISSE day care are close, they watch out for one another.

Today, I went to RISSE again, this time with Maria and Rachel Barlow, both artists.

Sakler’s teacher at RISSE,  Amjad Abdalla Muhammed (a/k/a Ali), took out his Iphone and showed us another drawing – this one of a wolf, below – that Sakler made recently. “He is so talented,” said Ali,” and he is the nicest boy, so courteous and helpful and appreciative.”

Rachel,  a professional artist and landscape painter whose works have grown increasingly popular in Vermont, was deeply impressed. “He is super talented,” she said.

So was Maria, who has an MFA in arts and is an accomplished artist herself. “He’s a natural,” she said, “you can’t really teach that skill, he just knows how to draw.” I sure think he is especially gifted.

We went to RISSE Monday to meet Rachel there, she raised $1,300 in recent weeks to purchase and assemble art kits for refugee children, we brought 80 of the kits to RISSE in bright orange bags. I am going back on Wednesday to visit the refugee kids again in their cozy  warrens above the Methodist Church below.

The kits were especially to promote creativity, ease stress and boost confidence. The refugee children have been through a lot.

Muhammed, a large, genial, enthusiastic man was born in the United States, but lived in Egypt until he was 17. He is connected to both cultures, he says, the American and the Middle Eastern. He is, as a good teacher would be, looking for every opportunity to encourage Sakler’s gifts. The kids there love him, and their affection is returned.

I am much impressed with Ali, I have always believed encouragement is the hallmark of the great teacher. I felt we became friends almost instantly, an unusual feeling for me, perhaps not for him. He cares deeply about the kids in his charge.

We all sat down and talked with Ali about how we might help Sakler, who came from Thailand,  in a bounded and thoughtful way. He would like to help enroll Sakler in an art class, we talked about books and support materials that might help in his drawing and art. We will talk more about it on Wednesday.

Sakler was one of those children America welcome. At RISSE, everyone thinks of those left behind or banned. The refugee children seem to know it could have been anyone of those left behind.

I am cautious, in this work and other therapy work, including the Mansion, about overstepping my bounds and invading the life of another person, I consider the space around person to be sacred.  I am not there to save people or play God with their lives.

But I also believed measured and informed support and encouragement can transform lives. I have always believed in the power of encouragement. It is one thing to wring out hands about beautiful babies in trouble, it is quite another to help them when they need help. We are a good and generous people, that is our soul and spirit.

I asked Ali what he needs to do his work.

Ali mentioned their need for uniforms for the RISSE soccer team, and also his unsuccessful struggles to take some of the boys to the Great Escape near Lake George, it costs about $50 per child, and he wants to bring 16 children. The park doesn’t offer discounts and he has not been able to raise the money.

He might need help for Sakler if he wants to take an art course or sign up for some special instruction. He has already taken him to an art program at the New York State Museum.

I said we should talk about those things and take them one at a time and see if there is any way to help. Ali is considering a special support page on the RISSE website especially for the refugee children.

Mostly, we all know what the refugees and immigrants most need right now is to be known and not feared or demonized for political gain. That is something that doesn’t cost money. I believe in doing good, not in arguing or dividing.

I’ll share this process as it unfolds. I want to do good, but do it in the right way. That means slow and careful. I think I can do some real good here, with your help, in a way that is bounded, inexpensive, and yet very powerful. Ali is doing heroic work, but he could sure use some help.

More later.  Below is Sakler’s wolf drawing. He is 13 years old.


The drawings of Sakler Moo
10 April

Chronicles Of Love: Book Tour Begins

by Jon Katz
The Book Tour Begins

Today, another book tour begins, Maria and I are driving to an NPR station in Albany to pre-record an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for “Talking To Animals: How We Can Understand Them And They Can Understand Us.” The book is coming out May 5th, but he interviews and pre-orders are underway.

Book tours are important to authors for many reasons.

But for Maria and I, they have a very special resonance and back story. We are grateful for book tours, they are very special to us.

Our friendship and our love for one another was born and shaped on book tours. When I met Maria, she was restoring houses with her then-husband, and she never had much money, she was looking for some outside work. I needed some I trusted to drive me around for local and regional appearances.

Maria was fascinated by books and was am avid reader, and although we had just met, we were very comfortable with one another, we could talk to each other more easily than we could speak with anyone else we had ever met. Book tours were intense, exhausting and high-pressure things then, author and escort were thrown together for hours and days in very closed circumstances. We had to be organized and on time, we ate on the fly, slept little, had no time to change or freshen up.

I offered her a job as driver for the Northeast part of my tour, at the time, I used to go all over the country, but publishers don’t do that any more. Random House was happy to hire her, she was cheaper than the professional media escorts and just as efficient.

We would spend many hours in the car together. My first salacious thoughts about Maria – we were both married to other people at the time, this was 2007 – came in a hotel room my publisher had reserved for me in Connecticut so I could rest on a grueling day that included two readings and some interviews. More about that in a bit.

Book tours lasted weeks then, it was another world and high-powered publicists handled almost everything.  Before the Internet and the great recession, publishers fought hard for their authors, I don’t like to even thing about that now, I don’t wish to get nostalgic or speak poorly of my life.

There were no blogs, Facebook was not a mainstream media entity, and the tours centered around interviews and bookstore readings in big cities.  I would fly into a city early in the morning, do a morning talk show on TV, do media appearances and interviews all day, visit the NPR affiliate, grab bood on the fly, do a big evening reading, get a few hours of sleep, fly right out again late that night or early the next morning.

It was especially grueling, and I loved every minute of it, of course.

I usually went to California and hop-scotched back to the East, there I had to drive everywhere, from Boston to Washington. The author was much too exhausted to do his or her driving, I would never have made it through a day.

I was much in demand and always drew big crowds.

In the Northeast, I went from  one event to another, and the escort was critical. He or she drove me, fed me, kept track of time, helped with lines (yes,there were often long lines of people waiting to meet me to have books signed) and I was struck by how at ease I was with Maria on those long drives where it didn’t make sense to fly. We just talked and talked.

I was lonely and unhappy at the time, when Maria was with me, the tours took on a special kind of magic and excitement. I loved traveling with her, she was so business like, warm and organized. And we never tired of talking to one another.

In the Connecticut hotel room – I had a suite just for the day – I found myself with Maria (and also a dog, Orson, and then Izzy, one dog often came to some local readings). These were the first salacious thoughts I had about her, we were in a hotel room together and alone, we were both exhausted. I realized

I had to get out of there or get her out of there or I might get into  trouble. Not that I would have dared to try anything. I am very ethical when it comes to relationships. If you are in a troubled one, get out of it, but don’t sneak around. But still…

Maria was like a nun, she quite a moralist, she would have  been horrified at any show of suggestion or impropriety, so I asked her to walk the dog while I did an interview. Then I got myself together and we went out to lunch. I never said or did anything inappropriate or romantic in any way until we were both separated and close to getting divorced.

But she has been a part of every book tour I’ve been on since then, and they have changed. No more limos, fewer interviews, hardly any flights anywhere, it’s mostly done in local readings and online, via social media. The high-powered publicists are gone, and so is the money to promote books. We are on our own.

Usually, just the two of us, and that is sweet and rewarding in its own way.

But the dynamic is still here, she shares my sense of excitement, the special wonder of writing a book and talking about it for the first time, and of meeting readers and supporters. Writers work alone much of the time, and book tours are about the only time we get real and personal feedback and thoughts from readers..

We are going to Albany today to do the first interview, the interviewer will be in Toronto. It will seem very familiar, we have come a long way together and our love only grows and deepens.

We will stop for  lunch and talk, and revel in the experience of doing book tours together, they were how we first became close and got to know one another. We sometimes roll out eyes about the interview, some questioners are prepared, most are winging it. We can tell the difference.

It was on the book tour that I realized the depth of my love for this remarkable person, who had seemed so quiet and depressed to me, but who seemed to come alive on the book tour. She helped me but was fiercely independent, never fawning or subservient in any way. It was a balancing act in a way, I think we learned how to be with one another and adjust.

From the first, she bristled at getting me coffee or being told what to do (on book tours, the author asks for coffee a lot and tells the escorts what to do). But she was organized, efficient and tireless. We never were uneasy with one another, or on each other’s nerves (as  long as I didn’t ask her to do anything, and I didn’t after a while). Despite by how much they have changed, book tours remain special to both of us.

Today, Maria will be at my side, helping to drive me, waiting for me with good words of encouragement when I come out of the studio, finding a spot for the car,  coming along on readings, letting me know how I am doing, getting a sandwich if I get wobbly. These days, she is as much or more of an attraction as me. Many of her blog and art followers show up at my readings to say hello to her and get a book from me.

My first reading will be at Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y.,  at 7 p.m. on May the 2nd. And by the way, you can pre-order my book from Battenkill Books and I will personalize and sign it and you will also get a free  and classy custom designed tote-bag. You can also call the store at 518 677-2515. They take credit cards and Paypal, and they are extraordinarily nice and competent.

I am excited about today, the interview will help me hone my thoughts and ideas about the book and the day will also remind both of us of how lucky we are to have and learned to love one another. We are nothing but lucky, and the book tours shaped our coming together.

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