15 February

Resurrection, And The Long, Slow, Death Of The Wise Man

by Jon Katz
The Long, Slow, Death Of The Wise Man

Thomas Merton once wrote that pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real.

Writers die twice, wrote Martin Amis in his new collection of essays, “The Rub Of Life:” Once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.

My talent has not died, but my understanding of it has. The Wise Man inside of me is dying, there will be no resurrection, I think it is too late for that, I’m ready to shed that skin.

I realized that I was never going to be a great writer nearly 20 years ago, my dreams of writing great novels and bathing in a sea of literary rose pedals died swift and hard.  Generally speaking, great writers do not write blogs or books about dogs and farms and life in the country.

The realization that I would never be a great writer crushed me at first, it was painful for me, but also turned out to be profoundly liberating.

The death of the literary fantasy freed me, I think, to become a good writer, and for the first time, a happy one.  It turns out I didn’t really need to be a great writer, just an ordinary one who wrote every day.

With the creation of my blog, I was finally free to become my own writer, to write for me, about what I wished to write about, and in my own sloppy and erratic voice. I was free to think. I no longer needed the permission or approval of agents, editors, critics, bookstores, literary snobs, or even my readers.

I was humbled, but necessarily so. I needed to understand my self in a different way, I needed to be  reborn, resurrected, risen from the spiritually dead.

You either find yourself or stay lost, and I found myself. I found myself taking photographs that I loved and other people loved. The artist inside of me escaped long years of imprisonment and torture.

The Great Recession, as it will forever be called, destroyed the world of publishing as I knew it, and so I became a new kind of writer, and here I am, writing every day, feeling at long last and for the first time, that I am doing precisely what I was meant to be doing, and loving every day of it. My life has meaning.

Somehow, in my meanderings through life, I had become the Wise Man who knew how other people ought to live and told them so. This iteration from insecurity to arrogance came perhaps out of years of analysis and therapy, experimentation and change, battered by the hard and relentless lessons and realities of life. I thought I had learned things.

I got sick yesterday, Maria passed long her cold,  and a good friend tried to comfort me. He told I needed to rest and take care of myself. Don’t worry about me, I said, I am happy with who I am. We all have to die of something.

Later in life, people began to come to me and ask me how they ought to live. Perhaps it was the therapy, or the books, or the things I was learning. I slipped into this role, I sat with friends and told them how they should live – only if they asked, only if they wanted me too, but still, it is only recently that I have seen the arrogance and delusion of the Wise Man. I guess it was flattering. When you tell other people how to live, it is presumed that you know, and the human ego is an amazing thing, me, someone who had bumbled spectacularly and destructively through a whole love had suddenly become a Wise Man who told other people how to live, it was flattering and puffed me up like a big balloon.

If you can tell other people how to live, if you have become a Wise Man, then  you must know how to live. Even if you don’t.

People who asked me to be in this role  were fascinated by me, it seemed, and eager to know what I thought. But over time, I noticed a strange thing. While I was always changing, they never did. While I was taking my life apart and re-constructing it – for better or worse – they never did. We always parted like two ships whose engines were on full forward and where heading in opposite directions. We just sailed away from one another..

Inside of me, all along, I knew better, I never believed that I knew how to tell anybody else how to live, just look at the catastrophe that my own life became for a long time.

I noticed these relationships never lasted, not only were they co-dependent, they were not of course, equal friendships. When you think you know how other people should live, then the relationships is almost irreversibly thrown out of balance, it isn’t really about you at all, but the notion of saving someone who must save themselves. That is not friendship on either end, friendships are mutually nourishing and bounded by trust. When you tell somebody how to live, they will almost inevitably throw up a wall around themselves to protect themselves from you.

Recognizing the limits of my talent was the first step towards real humility. But that wasn’t enough, it took a lot more.

Breaking down was another, the firebombing of my life that the recession brought was another. So was my divorce after 35 years of marriage, the loss of all of my friends,  and my estrangement from my daughter for some years. I fell apart, gave all my money away, went bust, and the bleeding didn’t stop until I met Maria and felt the healing powers of true love and a powerfully determined therapist.

That was when I got serious about changing, just as went whizzing past 60. Better late than never. That was when I took my responsibility for my life, and actually began living it.

I said goodbye to the Wise Man. For me, the path to wisdom began with accepting who I was not, what I did not know. I too looked for a wise man or women who might save me. It soon became terrifying to look in that mirror.

I studied empathy, and released it inside of myself. Empathy, more than any other thing, taught me humility. When you stand in the shoes of the people I see every day now, it is very difficult to feel wise or superior. I know nothing, really, that is what wisdom means in a sense. I am not God, I am not a wise man, I have no idea  how other people should live.

If there was an  AA meeting for narcissism, that might make a good prayer.

You cannot have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person, the therapist told me. Co-dependence is when you give pieces of your life  away to others. You can only save yourself, not others.

When you change, you will lost almost everyone in your life, because most people do not wish to change, and you will trouble them. And when you stop being a Wise Man, they will run from you and never return.

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when I became fully convinced of this fact that I began to love myself in an honest way and thus begin to love others.

As the Wise Man began to die, so did I  begin to live. So long.

15 February

Two Worlds Meet: The Mansion Residents Meet The Refugee Kids

by Jon Katz
A Meeting Of Two Worlds

In one sense, they have nothing in common, in another sense they have everything in common. Today, the RISSE refugee kids accepted an invitation to come to the Mansion and have lunch with the residents on February 23. We’ll order a special lunch and the Mansion is going to give them a chance to make their own sundaes.

If the weather is good, we will try to get them to Pompanuck  Farm for a couple of hours afterwards.

We believe the exposure will be good for both sides, they will mix together at lunch, have some sandwiches together, and talk to each other about their very different lives. I imagine it might be something of  culture shock for both of them, especially given the fact that many of the soccer kids do not yet speak strong English.

When I think of these two worlds colliding, I think of the fact that both are sometimes isolated, both have been removed from their original homes and comfort, both are struggling for place and identity.

It will be a very important thing for me also, and for Ali, to see these two very diverse groups mingling with one another.

For me, this is what America is all about, the mingling of different worlds and cultures into a spectacular whole.

We’ll firm  up the details tomorrow. RISSE after school goes on a ten day break this Friday and Ali and I met for an hour near Albany today to plan a busy week for them, Ali is determined that they not have too much time to hang around, he has lost a number of kids to the streets, he says, it will not happen to these kids.

We arranged for three indoor practice sessions at the Sportsplex in Half Moon, one ice skating session, a group visit to see the new movie “The Black Panther,” and a trip to Cambridge to mix with the Mansion residents. We agreed that should keep them plenty busy and off of the streets.

If you wish to support the Mansion or refugee work, you can do so by sending a donation to my post office box, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816,  to me via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com. Please mark the check or payment as being for the “Mansion,” or the “refugees.” All donations are kept in a separate account, monitored weekly and monthly by a bookkeeper and an accountant.

Thanks much.

A Note: Several people have tried to contact Ali directly about sending gifts to the RISSE team, some have contacted the kids themselves via their Facebook or social media pages. Please don’t do that. Ali’s job is to take care of the kids, if you have questions regarding gifts or help, you can e-mail me at jon@bedlamfarm.com, or contact RISSE directly. Please do not contact any of the players on the soccer team directly, it can be confusing and even frightening to them, and does not strike me as appropriate. Two people asked to visit these kids in their home without talking to me, Ali, or their parents. That’s a no.

Several women  have shown up in Albany looking to meet Ali, he can take care of himself.

The Mansion residents have few needs, and none of them are expensive or elaborate. I figure out what they need by asking them or talking to the staff, jewelry and clothing are not needed by everyone there, if you have questions just ask, I’ll speak directly with you – jon@bedlamfarm.com. One person offered to make some elaborate clothing for the RISSE kids, and Ali said it wasn’t something they needed right now. She got  upset and thought he must be angry with her.

If we don’t need or can’t use something, please don’t take it personally, it is never personal.

They love getting letters, and they love the holiday gifts and messages.

Let’s please keep our boundaries intact. The Mansion residents love communicating with the outside world, but this is not about giving them elaborate things, but connection and community and the connection of souls one to another.  I ask the staff several times a week what people need, and it is good to know that before buying or sending things.

Some of them are not clear about what they do or don’t need. And sometimes they ask for things that are bad for them to have. Thanks for your consideration.

15 February

On This Awful Day, Good People Dropped From The Sky

by Jon Katz
Good People Dropped From The Sky. Ali And Todd Van Epps

I got a message from Jane,  a high school student in Indiana this morning, she said “they keep telling us they will protect us, but I know and all of my friends know they are lying. Did they protect those kids in Florida yesterday?”

She was talking about the new RISSE – refugee and immigrant support center based in Albany – Amazon Wish List.

A refuge from Myanmar, a student a RISSE, a member of the soccer team, was nearly in tears over the news from Ft. Lauderdale. “America is getting to be just like my country,” he said. “They kill children.”

I watched some of the videos – I feel I need to do that, at least for a few minutes. People fear that we are  growing numb, but no one I knew was numb, their hearts are broken, they mostly just feel helpless, and that is different from numb.

Then I collected myself and was grateful that Ali and I were on a special mission of good today – to get the NIke bags for the soccer team stenciled with the team name and the player’s name, 20 Nike Brasilia bags, the hottest  equipment bags of all, with water proof compartments, space for stinky sneakers and snacks and cold water and a soccer ball.

These are classy  bags,  they cost $45 a piece. They are a personal gift from me to the team. Ali said these bags are the “greatest possible thing to give to these kids.”

Next Wednesday, the soccer team plays in a big Tournament, the President’s Day tournament at the Sportsplex of HalfMoon Sports in Half Moon, N.Y. We plan to surprise the kids before or after the game with their new equipment bags with their names on it.

“It is ordained,” said Ali, “we will win the tournament.” Maria and I, and Red, the official team mascot are coming to watch the game and head out with the team for a celebratory dinner.

Ali is himself one of the good people. He has devoted much of his life to making sure his kids, as he calls them, get through the storm of moving to America, they come with broken lives and fragile dreams.

One of the good people who dropped out of the sky was Kevin Smith, a co-owner of the Sportsflex, and a good and generous man who has made it possible for the team to practice indoors all through this cold winter and get some nourishing food to eat after each practice.

He also led us to another good man, whose name is Todd Van Epps, he runs a company called Wicked Smart Apparel in Watervliet, N.Y. Kevin Smith introduced us to him, and we took the bags there today. We decided a “RISSE” stencil in black, and below that, in teal, the player’s name. There are 20 kids on the team, four more hoping to get on.

Ali, who is a stern coach, says the four will have to earn their bags. Todd, whose company is headquartered in an iconic former Catholic School (he’s in the Principal’s office, he left the “principal’ plate on the door). Todd is a good person,  with a beating heart, and he wanted to help the team.

He is doing the stenciling for us for $7.50 a bag, which we know is far below his regular  price (another company said it would cost them  $20). He will have the bags done before Wednesday’s tournament game.

I thanked Todd Van Epps profusely, but I imagine he would value it if some of you did, also. It’s become a tradition of ours, if you are so inclined, his e-mail is todd@wickedsmartapparel.com. We asked him to design uniforms for the up and coming Risse Women’s Basketball Team, now numbering nine players. The season has not yet begun.

Todd was very good to us, he is an empathetic man, he asked about the kids, what they were like and where they came from. I thanked him,

(Another surprise, I’m getting Ali a megaphone so he won’t  have to scream so loudly across the field in practice and at the games.)

I was awash in good people today, they fell out of the sky. They healed me and challenged me and uplifted me, and reminded me of what it means to be a human.

First, a member of the Army Of Good sent RISSE a check for $20,000. Then, a flood of people rushed onto RISSE’s new baby, an Amazon Wish List of things the kids in the after school program need right now.

I got a bunch of e-mails right away. “Is this all there is on that list?,” Marsha asked, “we will take care of that in five minutes.” And  they did.

RISSE will expand the page once they figure out what a link is, technology is new to them.

But the page works fine – a good antidote today – and by the late afternoon, there were only three items left on the wish list page – a wall mount towel holder/dispenser, a request for six clipboards, and a school pack of colored scissors with anti-microbial protection, blunt and in assorted colors for$14.06.

Earlier, I bought some Play-doh ($7.99); Uno playing cards for $3.99; a Toy Smith jump rope for $4.15, a red rubber playground ball and two black wall clocks ($11.91 each).

A lot of good people came behind me and nearly cleaned the list out. Just two or three things left, as Martha warned.
“Is that all?,” asked Carol from Louisiana, “didn’t you tell them about us?”

Not enough, I guess, the wish list is being replenished as we speak, or so I hope. Be gentle with RISSE, they are new to this kind of thing. But they will grasp it quickly. They need a lot of things.

They cleared out a classroom to make space for the good clothing you sent them, you have equipped scores of refugees and immigrants for their first American winter, they aren’t going to thrift shops now or bargain stores they come to their well-stocked classroom for wonderful clothes in good condition.

More good people.

Every good person I encountered, or read about, or who e-mailed me, or who helped us, or who we met today nourished me, soothed me, uplifted me. I am sorry I didn’t find this healing venue many years ago, I often looked in the wrong places for the things I wanted.

No one can really be prepared for the Army Of Good. It’s like a hurricane, you know it’s coming but until you feel it you can’t grasp it. Just ask the staff and residents of the Mansion.

So it was a good day, good-wise, and an awfully heart-breaking day otherwise.

Really, how do we handle this, what can we feel about it?

This was the 18th school shooting of young 2018, our country is averaging the murder of children school every other day, and our government and leaders are paralyzed, spouting empty lies and platitudes.

My own idea is that the country will one day have to come together and decide what kind of country it wants to be,  and fight for our children, and for empathy, justice, and compassion. A country that will not protect its children from being slaughtered brutally by lethal weapons of war  is broken in spirit, soul and honor.

I cannot bear to think of what the last minutes of those children’s lives were like.

Jane, you are right. I apologize for my country, which has failed to protect you. But nobody can stop us or keep us from this curiously healing antidote, performing small acts of kindness.

Good people were dropping out of the sky today.

15 February

Feel Good: The New RISSE Amazon Wish List.. Very Easy To Do

by Jon Katz
The New RISSE Wish List

A month ago, I suggested to RISSE, the immigrant and refugee support group based in Albany, that they might consider an Amazon Wish List to make it easier for people to support the refugees and immigrants – especially the  young ones – in an inexpensive and very simple way.

Last night, I got the good word that the site is up.

These gift lists a great breakthrough for the needy, and the simplest and cheapest way for us to provide them with some of their most basic needs.

People can choose from a list provided by refugee organizations and famllies of the things they most need in their homes and in RISSE’s after school program, a lifesaver for families and kids arriving in America at a very turbulent time.

We don’t have to guess what they might need. They will tell us, and our gift goes straight to RISSE, no administrative costs or middlemen. I will continue to raise money for the additional things we do in support of the refugees and immigrants apart from the list. I will continue my work.

The Wish List will be updated as needs change.

The first, short version of the Wish List is up and running, and focusing for now, on what it is the kids need in their after school program, which provides hot meals and English classes and the chance to meet other kids and use popular toys, balls, jump ropes learning games.

If you should be asked for the correct shipping address (you shouldn’t be), it is: RISSE, 715 Morris Street, Albany, N.Y., 12208-2208. The telephone number, if requested, is 518 621-1041. RISSE cannot receive packages on Saturday Or Sunday.

You will notice at checkout an underlying line beneath the photo of the gift which says “risse’s wish list (below).” Check that to send the gifts directly to RISSE.

Checkout

RISSE is a Methodist Church run refugee and immigrant center in Albany. They are the place of first and last – and only – resort for refugees and immigrants arriving in America to discover their presence is controversial and almost all of their government subsidies are being cut.

Until last year, the federal government provided subsidies so the new arrivals to America would have time to adjust to life here. Most of those subsidies are going or will be going as the new federal budget takes effect.

The teachers and staff do the most extraordinary work helping children and adults adapt to American laws and practices – they help people file taxes, find jobs, learn English, study computing, find homes and apartments. They are overworked and understaffed, they struggle with few resources. Last year, RISSE was burned to the ground by arsonists,  the refugees and immigrants are regularly taunted at school.

I have been working with this program for nearly a year and I can tell you from the heart that these people are no threat to America – just look at the news today  -and are eager to become productive, tax-paying citizens. They are, in fact, of the best American traditions – overcoming tyranny and violence to give their children safe and good lives in America. That is not a new story for our country, and it is, in fact, my own story.

Maulidi the carver came to RISSE for help, and they are helping him find workspace for his beautiful carvings. He is also learning English there.

The Wish List is something I will do every morning when I sit down to write, nothing feels better than to do good, especially when you can do it for as little as $4.

As you know, I am  deeply involved the the RISSE soccer team, an effort to form community, keep kids off troubled urban streets, build pride, character and confidence. RISSE cannot support all of the activities of the team – we are doing that – their most urgent need is the after school program and fund-raising for tuition. We try to fill the holes in the system.

The children (and their families)  need everything from boots to clothing, but for now, the after school program of RISSE needs some toys and supplies. We did this before last year for newly arriving immigrants and filled a warehouse several times over with urgently needed household goods, from blankets to soap.

This list is simple, and I cannot think of a better way to feel grounded and connected, and follow the teachings of many great spiritual leaders in world history by helping the vulnerable and showing that we are a generous and welcoming nation.

This is what the real America does, and I thank  you. You might wish to add the RISSE address to your Amazon address book: RISSE, 715 Morris Street, Albany, N.Y., 12208-2208. 518 621 1041.  Or you can just click on “risse’s wish list.”

The crueler and more heartless they become,  the more good we do. I donated $22 worth of toys this morning, my day began on the best possible note. I imagine they will be surprised by the packages they are about to get, they have no idea what the Army Of Good is like.

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