17 February

John Greenwood’s Bliss: A Student’s Gift. ” On The Path.

by Jon Katz
A Teacher's Gift
A Teacher’s Gift

Maria and I were coming back from our morning walk in the woods. As we pulled into our driveway, Maria said “there’s a fencepost in front of the  mailbox.” This was puzzling. People throw all sorts of garbage out of their cars and onto the road every day, usually beer bottles, coffee cups and fast food bags,  but no one has every thrown a fence post out on our lawn. Not a big deal, I thought, we can toss it at the dump Saturday.

When Maria went to get it, I saw the lettering and I knew it had to be from John Greenwood, one of the first and most committed students in the writing workshop I had begun to teach.  And also one of the most thoughtful and creative people I have known. John has the gift of being generous without ever being intrusive, of being thoughtful without ever being dogmatic.

His mission is to capture feeling and emotion, he is very good at it., because he has a lot and is in touch with it.

A former milkman now working as an executive at the Stewart’s milk and convenience store chain, John came to me on fire, with a yearning to write and unleash the very powerful creative forces inside of him.

He loves his job and his colleagues, but it was not an environment where creativity was much pushed or talked about it.  It just wasn’t on the agenda. There was a loneliness inside of him in this way, he was in need of some direction and encouragement.

John was looking for help, something inside of him needed to come out. John was the reason I began teaching, he is the kind of intensely creative person who lived much of his life outside of the creative villages we call culture. He really had no way in as a working-class man with a tough job and much responsibility. He had no idea where to begin. He just needed to know he had as much right to do it as John Updike did.

It is a curious thing about teaching. Some people – John is a great example – are hungry for learning, grateful for it. Others come for fuzzy reasons. Many want to be writers, but they don’t want to work at it much, and they are often discouraged to learn it isn’t a magic or dramatic process.

I had a very gifted student once who took my classes for more than two years, she came a long way. I noticed after awhile that she was not following any of my advice or direction, she was almost doing the very opposite of what I taught, and she had stopped contributing much of anything to class.

I didn’t want to be criticizing her, but I wasn’t comfortable with the work she was doing. I could tell something was off, we were just not connecting. This didn’t mean she was wrong and I was right it, it just meant there was some other reason than learning that brought her to me, and I was not the right teacher for her.

So I told her that I didn’t ever want to be a source of discouragement, that we weren’t on the same page and she deserved  a teacher she was more in sync with. It was the first time in my teaching that I ever felt I had to do that.

She said that was fine, she dropped out of the class and we lost contact. I asked if she was angry, she denied it, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was furious, when she didn’t hear what she wanted to hear, there was nothing much left. I guess I felt as if I had failed, but that is a dangerous response in teaching.

People come to class for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the teacher connects, sometimes you can’t. The teacher learns after awhile that there will be successes and failures, all you can do is celebrate the successes and let go of the failures. Teachers are not Gods, not even close to it. I have a student, a gifted artist named Rachel Barlow who has been in my classes for five years, and every year she gets stronger, more confident and her work radiant. She is selling art all over the place, something she thought impossible just a few years ago.

I used to teach my class in four sessions, I realized that was not nearly long enough to really know a student and connect with them. My classes go on for years now, the current class may go on for the rest of my life, we are all so much in sync with one another. They might tire of me, but I will not tire of them.

Rachel has grown and changed each year, she has written poignantly about her struggles with depression, and somewhere in our class, she figured out that the best way to deal with her depression was to paint beautiful and evocative things. She is transformed, and by her own determination, not by me. Four weeks would not have been enough.

For John Greenwood, it didn’t take much. If I mentioned a blog, he started one. If I said he needed to share his work, he did. If I advised experimenting with different forms – words photos, video – it just happened. A revelation to me, sometimes  you can teach a ton with a whisper, it doesn’t have to be a drama.

The creative spark is in everyone, it just needs permission to come out. Teaching is not about telling others what to do, but seeing the bliss or passion in a student and helping him or her to bring it up.

I quoted Joseph Campbell to John, I told him to follow his bliss, something he still remembers and wrote about on the back of the Bedlam Farm sign post he left at my mailbox this morning. It is typical of John not to knock or disturb me. He is always convinced that he is bothering me, when he never is. People are funny that way, the people you want to see are usually too sensitive to come by, the people you don’t necessarily care to see have no compunctions about coming by.

John and I are very close, even though we rarely see or speak with one another. This weekend, he may be joining my new class at Pompanuck Farms, and I can’t say how happy that makes me. John understands that learning is a long process, it sometimes goes in fits and starts, depending on the rest of our lives, our distractions, and the teacher.

I love John’s sign and am grateful for it, but his real gift to me is the torrent of beautiful writing, videos, photographs and feelings he has expressed on his wonderful and much loved blog, Raining Iguanas. It was born out of my first teaching class in Cambridge.

The 12th and final step of the hero journey is that the hero returns to the ordinary world, bringing back what he has learned, sharing it with others. It’s about John Greenwood, really. He is already inspiring and teaching others. True creativity is infectious.

On the back of his fence post, John wrote, “You Gave Me Direction To Follow My Bliss.” And he did. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

I love the part where the pupil becomes the teacher. The fence is a wonderful gift, it points the way, it is the path.

Follow Your Bliss
Follow Your Bliss
26 January

John Greenwood: The Student Who Changed Me

by Jon Katz
The Student Who Changed Me
The Student Who Changed Me

Six or seven years ago, John Greenwood, a milkman who went to work for Stewart’s a big local convenience store that sells milk and food, came to one of my readings at Battenkill Books. He claims it changed his life, but he probably doesn’t know that he really changed mine.

John contacted me and joined one of the first Hubbard Hall Writer’s Groups that we formed in town. He was the first student I signed up, he is a quiet and shy man, but he is was on fire to create, and he created some of the most beautiful work I have seen in a long time. John is a big cheese at Stewart’s now, but we have remained quite close to one another.

John was a student of mine for more than two  years, and his blog, Raining Iguana’s is one of the most vibrant and creative I have seen. I wrote about him in 2012 just a year after I started my own blog. He was on his own hero journey. John is one of the most viscerally creative people I have ever met and that is sometimes a lonely process for him, he loves his work and the people he works with, but he has always drawn nourishment and inspiration from a creative community, and our class was a special one.

When John heard of my open heart surgery, he contacted me and offered his help and friendship, he is much too shy to drop by or even call. He is member of the Creative Group At Bedlam Farm, I sense we are returning to one another’s lives.

I don’t see John all that often, but we are very close. In a sense we are very much alike, we need to be creating things all the time or we get restless and unhappy. It is not simple for John, he has a busy and full life, a big job and four grandkids but he makes time for his stories, and nostalgic reports – he’s a kind of local Charles Kuralt, – on the people and history in the Saratoga Springs area. His pieces have that very authentic feeling.

John has a soft and elegiac touch in his work, his pieces have depth and emotion.

He has embraced, even pioneered the use of images and video in his pieces. They are living stories. He grasped the creative and individual potential of the blog and now inspires a lot of people.

John claims I changed his life, but he really changed mine. He opened me up teaching and showed me its potential, sharing what I had learned, the power of the blog to unleash the creativity often buried inside an individual. If John, a former milkman, had that kind of stuff inside of him, it reaffirmed my belief that most of us do. It was my job to try to bring it out. Some people need a push, some just need a tap on the shoulder.   I could hardly have imagined the depth and power of the work John started to turn out and produces still.

John need for his creative spark to be lit, and it was, and I have deepened my love for teaching and found ways to reach out to gifted people like John, who need little more than encouragement and a supportive community to find their own adventure. John’s blog, Raining Iguanas is an inspiration to anyone who seeks to free their inner spirits.

John did not see that creativity in  himself when he was delivering milk, he sees it now, and so do many other people. We had lunch at the Round House Cafe Monday and I was so glad to see him, I nearly cried. I’ve invited  him to join my writing class at Pompanuck Farm on Saturday mornings, and I took this quiet man over to Battenkill Books.

He doesn’t care to have his photo taken, but he knew I would, I just backed up a good ways to set the scene rather than take a portrait. He would have hated that. Hope to see you one of these Saturdays, John, and thanks for existing in our world. Check out his remarkable blog.

15 June

Raining Iguanas: John Greenwood And The Hero’s Journey

by Jon Katz
The Creative Spark

I met John Greenwood a couple of years ago. He came to one of my readings, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this quiet man, an ex-milkman and truck driver working at Stewart’s, a regional convenience store, milk and food chain. I could see he was on fire, restless, something inside of him wanted to come out. I can sense that in people. It’s how I first connected with Maria. I loved the way he talked about his wife and children, about his wish to write, to release the powerful creative forces inside of him.

I was a bit wary at first, wondering if he was for real, or one of the many people who flirt with working hard to be creative, but who often bail out when they find it is not so simple, the rewards not always instantaneous. Lots of people come up to me at readings and say things, and I am often not quite sure what to make of them.

John did not bail out. It has been one of the pleasures of my life to watch this quiet and unassuming man turn inward, take a deep breath, come out into the world and evolve. As a writer, as a photographer, as a poet, father, husband and human being. Talk about the creative spark. John is still on fire, a volcanic eruption. We came together again last night when he showed up at my Hubbard Hall Writer’s Workshop – what a great crew that is – something he wrote about on his wonderful blog, a model of how technology and creativity can work together for the benefit of the individual in the modern world.

Today I am proud to add John’s blog to the “Blogs I Love” page (at the top of this page). He is the real deal. He reminds us that artistry is not a closed shop, an elite community, a gift bestowed by lightning on the wondrous and mysterious. Creativity takes heart and soul, and work and courage. Our world sometimes conspires to make us think that being creative is a special gift granted to the very few rather than something that is inside of all of us, yearning to come out. We are taught to feel stupid, foolish, to suppress our own instincts and ideas.  We hide our own stories.

John talks often about how terrified he was to put his blog up, to reveal himself in so personal a way. To take the risk every creative person takes – coming into the world. I know that feeling. We all do, I think.

To understand this – to free or inner spirits –  is to awaken to the possibilities of life, something John Greenwood has done, in a culture where it is not often encouraged or supported. John spends a lot of time explaining his poetry to his fellow truck drivers. Good for you John and thanks for joining my workshop. And for existing. You are a light unto the world.

27 January

Books For Laura, Blogs For You: I’m Haunted By Johny Appleseed’s Ghost

by Jon Katz

“Do not worry at being worried, but accept worry peacefully. Difficult but not impossible.” – Johnny Appleseed.

I brought Laura three books today. She told me she loves to read but has not focused on reading. I offered to help. She said she’d love to read.

I went and picked out three books for her with the always helpful Battenkill Books staff.

But first, the rest of the story. It’s a curiously familiar one with me.

Maria told me the other day that I am the Johnny Appleseed of books and blogs. I am always urging people to try books I recommend, and I am, she says, a zealot for the idea of personal blogs.

This struck a nerve; I feel haunted by Johnny Appleseed. He planted trees; I plant blogs. Books too, sometimes. We are different in many ways. I shower every day.

Generally, this is thankless work; I lose much more often than I win. You really can’t tell other people what to do, and you shouldn’t. But like Appleseed, I was seized by demons years ago, and they live inside of me still.

I buy a lot of books, give them all away. I’ve gotten good at choosing books for people, something I love to do for the most selfish of reasons: it makes me feel good.

Nothing makes me happier than turning people onto books. I got two cardiac rehab nurses into reading. the first week.

When I first met Maria, I started giving her books. She appreciated this and told me it was evidence I wasn’t just a jerk. She says it was a major reason that she fell in love with me.

I feel the same way about helping people see the power of blogs.  I badger and pester people about blogs, I preach and bloviate about them. Many people understand the value of books, not so many grasp the importance of blogs.

And today, a lot more people read blogs than read books.

Blogs are important; they are, to me, our truest and purest media, the greatest form of individual expression since the printing press. A blog is just how Thomas Paine would have written Common Sense, which was a pamphlet.

I know so many people who would benefit from having a blog, but it’s not for everybody. I have nothing to say, they tell me. I don’t want to upset my family. My grammar isn’t perfect.

Nuts.

Look at all the ways we silence ourselves.

It’s true, I have annoyed,  pestered, and lobbied countless people in my life to try starting a blog, and quite often been obnoxious about it. I am very used to the rolling of eyes; it is, to me, the best imaginable way to try writing and learning how to do it.

It isn’t really for me to tell people what to read or whether or not to blog; I’m trying to curb the habit.

The books I got for Laura (above)

Maria and I have learned firsthand about the importance of blogs; they have given a voice, meaning, creativity and sustenance to both of us. They have permitted us to explore authenticity, live where we want, and do the work we love.

They have taught us to be honest and open and share our lives’ trajectory with others.

More importantly, they have given shape and dimension to our identity.

I’ve lost some friends through my advocacy for blogs.

One artist I knew stopped speaking to me because I offended him by suggesting he should put his art upon a blog to sell it, which he was struggling to do.

He was horrified; he thought putting art on a blog was just a digital form of commercial prostitution, like strolling around Times Square with a sandwich board plugging his work.

I have not seen him or heard from him since. Good riddance to a snob.

I don’t suggest a blog to everyone, just people I think are naturals for it – curious people, people who have things to say, want to find a voice,  need to show their work, learn how to write, find their place in the world, form their own community.

Of the hundreds of people I’ve suggested a blog too, six or seven have actually done it, none of them have any regrets.

I also volunteer to help people – mostly women, start their blogs or help people who have blogs and improve them.

Three of my favorite bloggers are women who started their own blogs without me and have excellent ones but are willing to sometimes listen to my ideas and/or ignore them.

One is the artist and baker and collage maker Emily Gold, who has become our good friend.

Her blog is called papercakescissors.com. Another is Julz Style, a belly dancer, weight lifter, cook, and founder of the Vermont Spatzel Company.  She is the author of the blog cooking and living my way. She has lots to say.

A third is Rachel Barlow, one of the most gifted creatives I’ve yet to meet, a former student in my writing class and now a blogger, author, painter, artist, and illustrator, the creator of rachelbarlow.com.

I consider Rachel’s blog (and Maria’s) and Emily’s and Julz to be models for creatives who wish to share and share their lives and work.

I am especially admiring and fond of John Greenwood’s warm and innovative blog, Raining Iguanas. John was one of the best students I ever had in my years of a teacher, his great heart shines through on his blog, and he is one of the most innovative bloggers I know.

I can’t honestly say I read the blog of another man.

I closely follow Eve Marko’s thoughtful and very honest and open blog, Eve Marko. It flows like a river stream. A Zen master, she brings a special kind of wisdom and meaning to her writing.

I can’t take credit for any of them, but they all show us why blogs can transform lives, shape our dreams and creativity. They are my argument.

Rachel took the idea and ran with it and is still running; she has one of the most graceful and beautiful blogs anywhere.

Emily and Julz didn’t need me to start their blog, and they don’t need me now. They are really making their blogs work for them and their art and work; they are inspirations for anyone who wants to find their own voice and follow their heart.

People like me would explode if I didn’t have bedlamfarm.com to express myself.

I feel the same way about books, but blogs have become more central to me in recent years. I wrote books for 40 years, now blogs are my creative outlet. The form works for me, just as books once did.

It is the present and the future. It is my living memoir.

I never before thought Johnny Appleseed was haunting me, but I see what Maria means. I’m just as crazy as he is and just as much of a fanatic on the subject of books and blogs as he was on apple trees.

Books marked one passage of my creative life, blogs another.

I’m sure there are deep and meaningful reasons why I do this, but this isn’t the time or the place.

But back to Laura.

I’ve gone to a gym not too far from where I live for several months after my recent heart surgery.

I have never found gyms comfortable or right for me until this one. One of the reasons I like this one is Laura, who is kind, cheerful and helpful. She is one of those larger than life personalities, chock full of charisma and ideas.

She comes right over to help if she sees me struggling with equipment or straps. She makes helpful suggestions about what equipment I should use. She is great fun to talk to.

She made me feel welcome and at home at the gym, even though I didn’t feel either at first or ever. She helped me feel easy there. And Laura is awfully smart.

I gave her these three books to read today. As I rode on my bike seriously and conscientiously, I turned my head over to see how it was going.

One seed at a time.

She had her head down and nodded over “Beach Read” by Emily Henry. It lifted my heart, and I looked away so she wouldn’t see me watching her. I could see she was into it.

Keep your fingers crossed. No strings attached.

I was thinking today how she’d be a natural for a blog. She has an awful lot to say and a ton of attitude. We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 October

Still Life: Bedlam Farm Sign, Coming In

by Jon Katz

Five years ago, our friend John Greenwood made me this beautiful sign for our farm. The wind blew it over one day and we parked it in the barn for safe-keeping until we could find a good place for it.

I forgot about it until the other day when I came into the barn and saw it beautifully place by the back. It was a beautiful place for it, but I decided to bring it into my study and find a place to hang it on the wall.

It has a lot of meaning for me. When I go out to lock up the hens, I’ll bring it out and back into the house. It’s like finding an old friend.

Bedlam Farm