There are people with pets and people with animals, and I’ve learned in recent years that the two often have very little understanding of one another. I am in the middle, I have animals that are both pets and farm animals, and I wrote about both and my readers and blog followers have both.
In America, most people used to live in and around farms and understood the lives of animals. In our day, 90 per cent of Americans live in the suburbs and cities along the coasts, and they have lost touch with animals. Many people actually believe that it is cruel for carriage horses to pull light carriages in Central Park, they do not know these are among the luckiest and best cared for animals on the earth.
When there is a natural challenge like the brutal cold we are having, many people do not understand why I can’t keep the animals snug and warm and completely comfortable and safe.
Animals like donkeys and sheep (and barn cats) are not pets, they live in the outdoors or in various shelters. It would unhealthy in the extreme to confine sheep or donkeys in a closed and heated barn. For one thing, heat is a great fire hazard in a barn filled with straw and hay, for another, the respiratory systems of these animals would be seriously endangered by being in warm and enclosed air.
Gus and Fate and Red sleep near wood stoves in warm houses, they are happy to be inside right now. The donkeys and sheep have no wish to live in our house, and would hate it in there.
The best situation for them is to have access to shelter from the wind, rain, ice and snow, but constant access to the outdoors, where they almost always prefer to be. We have a Pole barn, a three-sided structure that opens into an indoor space with stalls.
No real farmer would ever heat a barn, it is expensive, dangerous and unnecessary.
In cold weather like this, we open up the doors to the stalls and they can come in whenever they want. They almost never want to go in there, we always find them either in the shelter of the pole barn – standing on dry dirt and gravel, and usually covered with an inch or snow of snow. They are almost always standing out in the snow if they can.
In frigid weather, they come into the pole barn shelter so their hooves can be dry and off of the icy ground. They have 24 hour access to heated water, which helps to keep them warm. They get high protein grain twice a day in frigid weather, for energy, and second cut hay for extra nutrition.
What else can we do for them? Nothing much. Donkeys have thick hides and fur.
Hay and more hay helps keep the animals busy, grounded and with enough energy to get through -20 degree temperatures, which we are having tonight. We check on them frequently, put out more hay than they need. Hay is good for animal morale.
in the wild, they would, of course, be out in the elements, taking shelter under trees, like deer. So when I say the animals are cold, and it hurts me to see them uncomfortable, that is the truth. it does not mean they are being deprived of any possible comfort, shelter or nutrition.
Monday, Maria and I and all of our animals will be alive and well, soaking up the first above-freezing temperatures we have seen in a month. So far, our house, pumps and water line out to the barn have all been holding up well.
My wish for the animals is that they are soon standing out in the sun, sniffing under the snow for stubs of grass. That is when they are the most content. I don’t have any other magic wand for them tonight.
And yes, it hurts to think of them out there in such cold. I doubt they are much worried about it, but they are blessed with not being human.
Maria came into my office the other afternoon, she was angry and frustrated, she said she had been cursing her sewing machine, a machine she loves very much. It was not working probably, something about the threads.
I started to get concerned about it, I know how much that machine means to here.
Maybe we can take it to Saratoga, I suggested. Surely they can fix it in Albany or Glens Falls. Did she want me to drive her? She didn’t seem to focus on those ideas.
I get upset when Maria is upset, especially when it affects her work, just as I get upset when my computer goes down.
But what she wanted was understanding, not solutions. All she wanted was a sympathetic ear. She wasn’t giving me her problem.
As she left the room, I began to yell out some more suggestions and then I caught myself and stopped. I recognized a former deep habit – taking over the problems of other people.
Let her have her trouble, I thought, I don’t need to tell her what to do. She knows how to get a sewing machine fixed or repaired much better than me.
I am sorry she is having trouble, but it isn’t my trouble, and she isn’t giving it to me. I have my own troubles, and I don’t want her to take them on either.
I am fiercely committed to taking responsibility for my own life.
This is one of the most important lessons for living that I have learned in recent years.
To stop stealing other people’s troubles and taking them in. For one thing, it’s not healthy, it’s a boundary crossing that promotes co-dependence and often makes us emotional trash receptacles – I call it a toilet bowl – for other people’s troubles.
I know many people who are addicted to other people’s troubles, and are almost always frantic, drained or in drama.
This morning I wrote on my blog that I was having trouble staying inside when the thermometer plunges too low, it is hard for me to see Maria out there shoveling while I’m inside. But with my heart disease, it can be dangerous in extreme weather for me to be outside too long shoveling and scraping.
As I expected, I was flooded with suggestions. Why not buy a snowblower? Why not hire a kid to shovel the walk? Why not agree to shop and clean in exchange for her doing the shoveling? I wasn’t interested in any of these “solutions”, none of them would work for us.
Online, it is commonplace, almost universal, for people to take on the troubles and problems of others, to assume people can’t resolve them by themselves, or just let them work things out. E-mail and texting is not therapy and sympathy and pity is not real help, as soothing as it might be.
Facebook sometimes seems to me to be a vast trouble-sharing exchange, a kind of open market for picking up troubles and offering your own. For me, it doesn’t work.
A good therapist once told me to take other people’s troubles and just put them in an imaginary cup. Don’t take them in. It was wonderful advice and sparked me to see this issue more clearly.
People have to solve their own problems. We help when we can, and stop when we can’t, and understanding the difference is, to me, essential to becoming a fully developed and responsible human being. When I need help, I get it from the right place – trained professionals. We cannot save other people, only ourselves.
Maria and i worked out our frustrations quite easily – she was upset that I kept saying I would stay inside in the bitter cold, and then, invariably come outside with a shovel. I explained that this was a painful thing for me, to do, and she needed to trust me to be careful and work it out. She said she would, of course.
That problem is gone. We each do what we want to do and can do.
The thing is, we don’t want or need a snowblower. The space is not large and Maria can easily do it by herself or with a bit of help from me. We don’t need another $1,000 machine in the barn, or more gasoline or oil, or more maintenance and repairs, or another loud engine in a peaceful place. People who know us would be shocked if we bought a snowblower.
People who do not know us think it’s a good idea. There are lessons in that. Don’t tell other people what to do, in recent years a sacred mantra in my life and my writing.
it is hard for me to understand why people would think we wouldn’t know about snowblowers or how to get them. Is that really good advice or is it a need in others to want to be helpful, who take in problems.
If we wanted a snowblower, we would, of course, get one. If we wanted to hire a kid, which we don’t need either, we would have. We don’t need anyone to take over our troubles. We need to work them out with one another and with ourselves.
I have no right to tell strangers what to do, it is, to me, irresponsible and counter-productive, however well meaning.
I feel so much lighter since I began training myself to stop taking in the problems of other people. Many times a week, and especially on Facebook Messenger, I get very lengthy letters from people who have lost dogs or cats or pets.
The messages are not joyous or meaningful reflections, they are mostly tales of suffering and guilt and mourning. They want me to be sorry for their loss, and this is not something I can do for everyone who seeks it. I do not do prolonged mourning for animas, that is the nature of animals, they get sick and die. It’s the deal.
I do not read these messages or take them in, not only because I’m strange but because I can’t take in the problems of strangers and other people that are not my problems. It is not healthy.
My dogs get sick and die too, and I share those stories because it is my work, but I do not want or expect anyone to internalize my troubles, to cry for me or pray for me, or to mourn for me or my animals. That is my job, my responsibility.
We ail face the loss of loved ones or animals, it is a profound and universal element of life. For me, it is not a tragedy, but central to the lives and souls of human beings. It is no surprise or drama for me, as sad as it sometimes is.
So is solving problems, the hallmark of the independent person.
Gus is sick, and it is important for me to share the experience. But not to give it away, I make my own decisions, talking primarily to Maria and our vet. I need to know the decision is sound and loving, and that’s why I need to take responsibility for it myself, solutions and decisions are not something that be shared.
And Gus’s illness is not for other people to solve. It is for me and Maria and our vet to solve, if it can be solved at all.
This has been a healthy lesson for me. I am better able to emotionally focus on people I can help – like the refugees or Mansion residents. My sympathy and empathy goes to them, my wife, my daughter and friends.
Like many people, I take fear and grief inside of me, as if it were coming in an IV attached to my arm. My work requires a clear and focused head, and I must be careful about what I let in and from who. I’ve suffered from mental illness myself and I have learned to protect my mental health.
I see more clearly all the time what the boundaries are, and how valuable they are.
Listening is an act of friendship, empathizing an act of love, compassion and generosity are acts of decency. But I don’t give my problems to anyone else, and presume to offer solutions to others, and I don’t take in the problems of others and presume to be able to solve them.
This has made me stronger and clearer about my life and my work, and I have been wanting to share it for some time. I am finally becoming a good listener.
Listening is in itself a boundary, and it has become my practice. it is a valuable boundary because most often, it is in itself a brake, I don’t need to go any further.
My hospice and therapy work has honed this value for me, because there, we are trained to listen, not to soothe, promise, or even offer hope. We either learn boundaries or fail. We don’t ever say everything will be all right, because it would be false to say that, and how could we possibly know?
As Maria left my office the day of sewing machine breakdown, I said I was sorry she was having trouble with her sewing machine, I was sure she could handle it, and she thanked me and went to solve the problems. And why on earth would I think she needed me to drive her? She had her own car and can drive myself. And I had work to do of my own.
I was happy with myself, it took me a long time to get there. But it has been internalized, it is a part of me now.
Maria solved it herself, of course, as she is well equipped to do. Taking other people’s trouble is a kind of arrogance and hubris, I think, it always presumes we know more than they know.
I don’t know more than other people know about their problems, and that it a very liberating thing to grasp.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, Maria and I are heading to Albany to meet Ali (Amjad Abdulla) at a supermarket in central Albany. There, we will buy between $150 to $200 worth of groceries and bring them to a refugee family in need of some support.
By definition, a refugee has suffered persecution or disaster, and now, when they come to the United States, they are suffering persecution yet again, and in an especially cruel and thoughtless way.
Their support and subsidies have been slashed so that people who come here because they have lost everything, lose the financial and administrative support that helped them make the transition to our country.
The idea, worked out by me and Ali, is to bring roughly a months worth of groceries to a different refugee family each month. Some come from Eastern Europe, some from Africa, others from Asia, Mexico or South America.
The family we are seeing tomorrow is from the Congo in Africa, they were in a U.N. refugee camp where the father was killed. The mother is here with eight children, and struggling to care for them and feed them.
One month’s groceries is literally a drop in the bucket, but RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center in Albany, offers longer term support – language and financial classes, help with paperwork and jobs, clothing and computing skills.
I hope to show the refugees the truly generous heart and spirit of America, what Ali and I call the “Real America.”
That is about all the support they have now. So one step at a time, one small act of kindness at a time, this feels very good to me, and I will be there with my camera. The family is happy to be photographed and grateful for the food.
Tomorrow kicks off what will hopefully be a continuous project, a monthly food run to a refugee family in need of some help. They see America as a beacon, a generous place of opportunity and assimilation. I see it that way also.
It is better to do good than argue about what good is. I’ve received a number of donations for the food program and thank you.
My sister told me a month ago that she had taken up water color painting. She is teaching herself how to paint. If you know my sister, you know she will soon be painting beautiful water colors. She is incredibly, bright, creative and focused, and no one works harder at anything than my sister when she decides to take it up.
She has always been self taught, and has most often been brighter than any of her teachers. She lives by herself in a remote corner of New York State with her five big dogs, her town makes mine look like Manhattan. She has had a challenging and very difficult life and has given rebirth to herself into a love she loves with good friends and a great love of a life with animals.
She has remarkable hope and generosity of spirit, I have never heard her utter a word of complain or lament, and when I fell apart on my mountain nearly ten years ago, she was there for me every single day and night, whenever I needed her to be there. I cannot imagine having gotten through it without here.
We remain close, even though we don’t speak all that often. It is a closeness that does not need words and is beyond consciousness, in some ways much as many people have with certain animals. She is my only remaining connection to my original family, and I love and admire her, and am grateful for her presence in my life.
We were very close as kids, and tried hard to protect and support one another in difficult times. I was very excited to hear she was taken up painting and have nagged her for some samples. She is just starting out, teaching herself, experimenting, but even this practice page shows a feeling for colors and shapes and patterns.
She has a strong scientific bent and she will figure this out, I am excited to see the ones she sent me and can’t wait to see more. Go, Jane.
My first message of the day came from a devoted reader of the blog named Linda Brown. She is brave, even admirable in many ways. And her message to me was timely.
She reads me faithfully even though she doesn’t appear to like me very much, and there is something noble about that. And it is comforting to see her name on a message. She is very consistent, sort of like an old shoe.
I wrote yesterday about my discomfort the sheep and donkeys must feel in such bitter cold, even though they have shelter and food.
Linda sent me a comment on my new blog comments section: “If you have to own sheep, you should have a barn that is equipped for them to be safe and warm in. if not, you should give them to someone who knows enough to properly take care of them.”
I can’t argue with that, every word is true. Linda could be speaking of my barn. And all trolls are not bad.
Actually, Linda, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability (sort of) and and being, like, really compassionate and humane.
All kinds of writers I once knew have gone down in flames, faded into the mist, yet here I am, still going, annoying people, butchering animals, living with chickens and donkeys and dogs on a small farm with a lots of frozen manure, a porch that needs a roof, a heart condition called angina, and a – 40 wind chill.
I went from being a very successful, best-selling author (millions and millions of books) loaded with money, to being a blogger with several billion readers – the most any blogger has ever had ever – and then on to being broke, cleaning up my dogs vomit and very colorful regurgitations sometimes two or three times a day.
I just got a free coupon online for two jugs of Odor Off, and you don’t get that for being inhumane. I can clean up a normal regurgitation in less than a minute, I keep the Lysol and odor remover right out on the kitchen counter, I feel just like a First Responder rushing to an accident. I bring three paper towel sheets, first the Lysol, then the Odor- Off. No traces left, guaranteed.
I think that I would qualify, not just as being humane, but BRILLIANTLY humane, even like, a GENIUS humane person. I can’t swear to the mental stability, I’ve moved a score of times, horrified every teacher I ever had, drove off countless friends, gave away all of my money, went bankrupt, cracked up, got divorced, sought help, lived alone in the woods for a year, shared my sorry story on the Internet, walked naked in a snow storm, started taking lots of photos for no apparent reason.
But I haven’t moved, taken valium or seen a shrink in several years.
For me, that is mental stability. I’m very close to being dull.
Just sayin. Please come visit, Linda, the sheep would love to meet you, and they are healthy and fat and hearty, and being so humane yourself, we should have a drink at the Bog together.
My friend Kelly would take good care of you, and we could continue or dialogue face-to-face. We could do Face Time once in awhile, or even Skype. Stay warm yourself, I hope you are someplace safe and warm, and that your people are taking good care of you.