13 January

Dignity And Self. The Sacred Voice That Calls Us “Beloved.”

by Jon Katz
Your Life Is Not So Bad AS You Are

However mean your life is, wrote Thoreau, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.

It is never so bad as you are. I believe this is also true when it comes to  work.

I do not speak poorly of my work – there are many who enthusiastically do that for me, and I tell my students to never speak poorly of their work. It is almost surely listening.

I believe in loving my life, as poor and broken as it sometimes has been. I’ve had glorious hours everywhere, in the woods, in my study, in a hospital bed, in a blizzard, holding the hand of a hospice patient, walking into a museum with Maria.

Thoreau also wrote that disobedience is the foundation of freedom.

I never feel stronger or better than when I stand up for my right to define myself, express myself freely, say what I want, make my own mistakes and my own successes.

And I am never more disliked or resented than when I stand in my truth and say what I please. It is not approval or agreement I need or seek, it is self-respect, the cornerstone of a meaningful life.

I suppose this has always been controversial, and even outrageous to many people. It is hard to explain that self-respect comes from my own successes or failures, from owning my own life. This is not something everyone needs, this is something I need.

I have always been inspired by Thoreau in part because he understand that all good things are wild and free, and also because he found his true self in solitude, and always cherished the gift of being alone.

That is very difficult to do in our time, when we are wired into eternally bad news and the lives of other people and their business.  I live in their heads and they live in mine.  I often lose the boundaries of my own space. We have come to value the idea of always being connected, and thus never being alone.

I have always been alone, and thus never really connected. This is a new idea for me, and I struggle with it.

I think this idea of aloneness is now considered a disease in our culture. Children are labeled and medicated for it.  Perhaps the greatest threat to my idea of  freedom and solitude was Maria, she has broken through this idea of aloneness, yet her respect for me and my self has been nothing but healing.

As she knows, aloneness is not something that ever really goes away.

The challenge of our time for the individual is that transgressions, tragedies, ideas, stupidity, victories and failures, all seem to belong to everyone.Our goal is to see how much we are shared, not how valuable our ideas are. I suppose on some level I fear a thousand victories gained with and from other people, because how can I ever separate them from my own?

To me, making up my own mind and exploring things are essential to identity, to the building of self. And how do I find my own self it it it so bound to the selves of millions of other people?

Thoreau said the greatest compliment that was ever paid to him was when someone asked him what he thought, and listened to the answer. I ask that question as often as i can, I learn from listening, not from telling anyone else what to do or think.

Nothing surprises me more than the many people I encounter who never ask me any kind of question at all, as if there is nothing about me they ever need or want to know. I am told I unnerve people all the time by the questions I ask, every person is a wondrous miracle to me waiting to have their story sucked out of them.

And every story is compelling and unique. I suppose this is why I loved being a reporter so much, I finally had a license to get everybody’s story.

I don’t have a license any longer,  but it remains a part of me now. I am not the most gifted of people, but I might be the most curious.

Small wonder I have few friends, or rarely get invited to dinner once, let alone twice.

I seek respect and dignity, the freedom to think.

The greatest compliment I am ever paid is when someone tells me I made them think. That is much more important than being agreed with.

One of the greatest puzzles is when people tell me they read my writing even though they often disagree with me. Why would I read anybody with whom I never disagree? I think they call that being on  the left or the right, or being a Democrat or  Republican, or any of the other labels we stick onto our consciousness.

If I am out of sync with the world outside of my window, it is because I hear different music.

I dance to the music I hear,  for better or worse, it is the only music I know..”I was not born to be forced,” wrote Thoreau. “I will breathe after my own fashion.”

Me too. I have to dare to be myself, and take the risk, as strange or threatening or frightening as that might be. I never tell myself that I am always right, or that everyone else is always wrong.  I can only tell myself that I am being me.

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves,” wrote Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “Love In The Time Of Cholera.”

I don’t even know what it means to be right, that is such a fluid and temporal idea. The holy priests of the Inquisition believed they were right, so did the Nazi’s, so did Cotton Mather and the judges and jurors of the Salem With Trials.

But Marquez is right, and I have given birth to myself  many times, it is the trajectory of my life.

The bottom line is this: I can blame my teachers or parents or bosses or life all I want, but I know that my troubles and failings are always my fault, because if I wanted to change, I was the only one who could change.

And when I finally decided to change, I did.

Every fulfilled human being I have ever met has changed, and every stymied, paralyzed and miserable person I know will not change.

Is that too simple a line to draw? Maybe, but I believe it.

Most people would suffer almost any torment rather than change, they rationalize and hide until they turn blue.

“Don’t fool yourself,” a therapist once told me. “Most people don’t want to change.” Torment finally drove me to change, misery was my greatest inspiration. Happiness is better for me, worth all of the trouble and danger.

A self is not something that pops out of the womb, a self is always becoming a self.  This is work that never ends.

Jiddu Krishnamurti says the ability to observe without evaluating  or [interfering] is the highest form of intelligence. I am getting there.

The greatest trap I have stumbled into in my life is not success or power or rejection by others, but self-rejection, self-hatred, and fear. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life, wrote philosopher Henri .M. Nouwen, “because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.”

And being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence, of our self. My past is everything I failed to be. My future is everything I can be.

13 January

Smile: Video, Fate And Gus Playing Today

by Jon Katz

Give yourself a break today and watch Fate and Gus playing this morning. Gus has had a rough week, and so has much of the country, still grappling with a rugged winter. The sight of dogs playing seems to life the human spirits, I know it lifts mine, and Gus has been a great gift to Fate, a very serious dog who loves and needs to play. Come and see.

13 January

Sunday, A Shithole Celebration. We Are All Refugees…

by Jon Katz

Sunday, Maria and I head for Albany for a gathering of Shithole Peoples celebrating their faith, their culture, their new lives in America. There will be food and dancing and singing.

My friend Ali, who invited me, says the parents of the RISSE boys and girls want to meet me, and I think it is about time we meet and shake hands and get a look at one another.

We are, after all, important to one another. These are hard working people, often single parent families due to tragedy and destruction, they don’t often get a chance to come out in support of their children, as many parents in America get to do. They work too many jobs.

They have made time for this day, in part a celebration of the Koran, in part a coming together to honor the cultures they have left behind, in part to meet me, and to meet Maria.

These are wandering peoples with broken lives, individuals and families in search of dignity within an alien and sometimes hostile community.

“The story of our struggle has finally become known,” wrote refugee Hannah Arendt in her wonderful essay “We Refugees” in 1943. “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life.

We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expressions of feelings. We left our relatives behind and saw our best friends killed in camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”

Nevertheless, she wrote, “as soon as we were saved – and most of us had to be saved several times – we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us.”

I call this the Shithole gathering out of respect, not derision. I use the term because most of the people I will meet tomorrow came from poor and troubled countries, the “Shithole” countries, as they have been labeled, the dark and broken countries, crippled by war, genocide and natural disasters.

The people to whom America has always offered itself as a beacon of light.

It has been suggested that we can do better by admitting people from countries that are not poor and troubled, that are not “Shithole” countries, and it seems, that are also white. It seems small and bitter to me to dismiss these people in that way, perhaps because I am one of them. My people all came from some of the worst shitholes on the earth. I see them as my brothers and sisters.

I can’t quite imagine how they see me.

The people I will meet are huggers, I have been told, shy and  quiet people not used to small talk, many still working to learn out language. I think there will not be a lot of talking, but a lot of feeling.

I will be touching, shaking hands with and hugging people from Africa and Haiti and some of the most devastated countries in the world. I admire them, love some already, and find their children to be brave and kind and loyal and courteous. They have suffered horror before, and some are suffering horrors again, there is indifference and hostility to them all over the world, even here, in the land of the free and the brave.

These people do not ever complain or whine, or dwell on their suffering. Mostly, they live and work to give their children better and safer lives. “I just give thanks for whatever Gods brought me and my family here,” Maulidi the carver told me.

We are taking lots of stuff. Our car is stuffed with bags:

Winter jackets, waterproof socks, games for children, books and CD’s, sweaters and carving tools, games and puzzles. Maria has joined in this work with me, we are doing it together.

We have been collecting things for a while and putting them aside. After our meeting with these people at a local school, we will join with our friend Ali and distribute some of the things in our car to the tiny apartments in and around Albany, N.Y., where many of these families now live, a different world that the world most grew up in.

For many, this is their first winter, and that is a journey in itself.

I will give Ali a check for $200 for winter books for kids, and another check for $500 for Maulidi, whose beautiful carvings Maria has sold quickly and all over the country.  He seems to be quite skilled. Maulidi comes from a “Shithole” country ravaged by genocide and civil war, he lost his carving tools when he came here, and they were replaced by the Army Of Good.

He is a quiet, honest and brave man – he spent 22 years in refugee camps, and he reminds me that working at a Hedge Fund or as a CEO is not the only valuable skill to offer the world.

Maulidi is quite highly skilled.

He does not seem a waste to me, but a brilliant artist whose very existence and life was saved by America, even as many of its leaders and people now turn their backs on him and people like him.

We are excited about tomorrow.

We will see one of the families who have already gotten groceries from our new monthly Refugee Grocery program, and we will see dozens of adults and children wearing the clothes and jackets and shoes sent to them as part of our Refugee Winter Clothing program.

We are, I think, showing them the true heart and soul of America.We are excited about going.  It feels good. More tomorrow.








13 January

Praise Be To You, Our Sister, Mother Earth. Our Winter.

by Jon Katz
Praised Be To You, Our Sister 

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.” – Saint Francis of Assisi, canticle.

There is an apocalyptic quality to this winter at times. We woke this morning to howling winds rattling our windows, cold pushing through the frames and into the house, outside driving ice and snow and bitter cold, we are back below zero again.

There is a different quality to the winter this year so far, sometimes I think it is telling me our time is coming, we are losing the right to fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

This winter has awakened me once again to what I have come to believe are the cries of Mother Earth, who now cries out to us because of the great harm we are inflicting on her by our greedy and reckless use an abuse of her.

“We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters,” wrote Pope Francis in his beautiful and timely encyclical “Laudato Si,” last year, “we feel we are entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected i the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth itself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor, she “groans in travail.”

I was deeply touched by the Laudato Si, I keep a copy of it by my computer and sometimes read it in the morning, before I work. We seem in our country to worship the economy, if everyone is making lots of money then the world is good and our work is done. We need not worry about the awful price we are inflicted.

“We have forgotten,” wrote Francis, “that our very bodies are made up of her elements, we ourselves are dust of the earth,  we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

Living in the country, on my farm, I have come to consciousness about our Sister, Mother Earth, and more and more, I see this cold, these storms, these winds and fires as inevitable. The prophets in the Kabbalah wrote of God’s warning, that if we did not care for Mother Earth and love her, she would turn against us to save herself.

Money matters, but the earth is more precious, and cannot be banked or replaced. When it is broken, it can never be fixed.

This is what I see and feel in this weather, in this cold, in the raging fires and destructive storms. In the furious winds this morning, I heard her voice, soft and wounded, clear and piercing.

It is all a clear message to me, to give thanks to she who sustains and governs us, and who produces fruit with colored flowers and herbs. She is talking to me. I am listening to her.

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