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.

3 September

The Chronicles Of Grief: Ed Gulley’s Bridge

by Jon Katz

The open life and social media often collide or mesh in unpredictable ways. Sometimes my messages are cruel and disturbing, sometimes – most of the time, to be honest – they are warm and affirming. Often, they surprise and puzzle me. But they almost always give me something to think about.

Anyone who writes in the open and shares his or her life understands the challenges and rewards of the open life. Messages from the outside world pour through my life like a stream pouring down a mountain.

While I am sometimes stung and frequently uplifted by my messages, I have come to understand over the years that each message teaches me something about myself or the world around me, these interactions enrich my understanding of my own soul and the nature and contradictions of life.

I take something from every single one.

They have, over time, made me stronger and more self-aware and forced me to think more deeply than I otherwise might have about who I am and who I wish to be. They have changed me.

I learned in recent years that my soul can’t find itself unless it acts.

My soul resides in the mind and the heart, I think.

So I must act. For me, stagnation, stasis, and inactivity bring fear, depression and a kind of spiritual death. My messages are my guide and conscience and moral grounding. Each one causes me to act in one way or another, even if it is just to think.

That’s true even of the ones that are cruel and meant to be wounding.

Perhaps I learn the most from them.

Over the years, these messages, like training a new puppy, challenge me to be a better human, more empathetic, patient and stronger human being. Through them, I’ve learned to shed a great deal of anger, to think before writing, to feel compassion instead of judgment, to be honest rather than argumentative.

I’ve learned to write about myself and not tell other people what to think, write or do.

My messages have been good to me if I am being honest, and I use every single one to look at myself and learn what I need to learn.

Every year, in late August, I get eight or nine – sometimes a dozen – messages from blog readers asking me how I am celebrating the anniversary of Ed Gulley’s death, which came sometime in August of 2018. Or of his birthday, which comes on a date I’ve never remembered.

“I’m missing Ed,” today, wrote one woman. “Are you?”

Two or three people usually chastise me for not mentioning or honoring his birthday as well as the date of his death. They remember. Others just write out of warm intentions, they have assumed that I am in mourning, that Ed’s death is a sad and somber day for me.

These messages speak to me of how people grieve, and what they expect of me and other people, especially since I was often the person who introduced them to Ed Gulley, and presumably, the reason they remember him at all.

I loved Ed Gully, my farmer friend and sat by him every afternoon for months as his cancer slowly took him over and ended his life. He asked me to record videos of his sickness and to sit with him and talk every afternoon.

I did. I came to feel that my presence every day was not universally welcomed, but it was enough that Ed wanted me to be there. We mattered to one another.

Ed surprised me one afternoon by suggesting that I write a book about him, and I sat down and mulled it for two or three seconds, and that I said that he wasn’t Winston Churchill. Nobody was going to write a book about a grumpy and crazy old farmer who made striking metal art sculptures from farm implements.

Certainly not me.

He laughed and said that was why he loved me.

But that was the boundary of it: him and me, it didn’t go beyond that. I was his friend, Maria was his art guru and adviser.

I wanted to honor Ed’s request to be present during his brutal sickness,  but in retrospect, I’m not sure how much good I did.  Maybe I was visiting for me, not really for him. We all love to be heroes.

I’m not ever sure how to respond to the messages asking me about Ed’s birthday or a death anniversary.

For one thing, I never really celebrated his birthday with him, and still don’t know what day it is.

He never celebrated my birthday or knew what day it was. I don’t think birthdays were important to either of us, really, at least not in our kind of friendship. Those things were for his family to worry about, not for me.

I don’t know the birthdays of any of my friends and wouldn’t think to ask.

And I sure don’t recall the anniversary of their deaths. Why would I want to remember that?

I gag at the constant Facebook reminders to wish each of my 55,000 Facebook Friends a happy birthday. I know that is the inspiration for most of the messages I get about him, his birthday pops up in the Facebook calendar.

How false, how shallow. What can it mean to be reminded by an algorithm to wish a friend a happy birthday? Yuk.

It seems to me that monstrously powerful entities like Facebook are beginning to set our social agenda. Facebook likes birthdays because they bring more and more people together, more fodder for advertisers seeking data. Because birthdays are important to Facebook, gullible people assume they must be important, why else are we making such a fuss over them?

I am taken aback when people I don’t know and haven’t met remember the birthday or date of death of a friend and are surprised I’m not doing the same thing.

One thing I’ve learned about grieving is that we project our own feelings onto everybody else. I was appalled during my hospice visits how many “friends” show up to tell the family how awful death was, how grieving was devastating and could last for years. Wow, I thought, that’s just like telling a cancer patient how painful and lonely death could be.

When I tell a dog person that my dog died, most immediately tell me about how their dog died. They assume I react the way they did, that we shared the same experience. They tell me how I may grieve for years and how much they suffered and for how long.

I don’t tell people I meet driving around town about the death of my dogs anymore.

The other day I got a message from the other side of the world telling me how devastated I must be by Red’s death, they knew what a tragedy it must be to me, they were praying to me.

I sent them a photograph from one of my new breeder’s previous litter of puppies: getting a new puppy, I wrote:

I don’t mean to disappoint you, I said, but I am not devastated by Red’s death, nor do I consider it a tragedy. I am never comfortable being told what to write or how I feel.

If this makes me cold or uncaring, then it’s something I just must learn about myself. What I’ve also learned – and Ed Gulley would be the very first person to shake my hand if I said this to him – is not to ever put my own grief or sorrow onto anybody else.

If I worship anything, I worship the sacred right of each of us to be ourselves and not to assume that anyone is us, whether they are grieving or not. I don’t want to see myself, I want to be myself.

Thomas Merton wrote once that when a man constantly looks and looks at himself in the mirror of his own acts, his spiritual double vision splits him into two people. And if he strains his eyes hard enough, he forgets which one is real.

I don’t really care about the anniversary of Ed’s death, it’s the last possible way I would remember him, the last thing he would have wanted me to remember.

When I want to think about Ed, I look at the sign my friend John Greenwood made for me to honor Ed’s work and our friendship. John knew Ed and he knows me, he understood what we meant to each other.

I remember the bridge Ed built for me and Maria so that we could get to the woods behind our farm. Just about every day of the year one or the other of us walks out on that bridge and I give thanks for Ed’s generosity of spirit, and his passion for helping other people.

That’s what I’ll think about when I want to remember Ed. And I can do it every time I walk out to the pasture gate, not when it pops up on a Facebook calendar that wants to remind people of him so they can sell more ads to people who care nothing for any of us..

9 February

A Loss For Words: The Bedlam Farm Writer’s Workshop Comes Out…

by Jon Katz

I confess to something that is rare for me. I am at a loss for words (or was when I started writing this) to capture the emotion and creativity and courage and warmth I felt today in the two-and-a-half hour readings of the Bedlam Farm Writer’s And Poets Workshop at the Battenkill Bookstore in Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

Eight students in the class – Rachel Barlow, Jackie Thorne, Amy Herring, Susan Popper, Caroline Ashton, Sandy Van Dyke, Carolyn Smith, Dr. Jen Baker-Porazinski, and alumnus John Greenwood – read their poems and essays and talked about their lives and writing.

I have to say it was an intensely emotional experience for me.

I’ve been teaching writing for many years, and finally find myself with the dream class, the class I always hoped for and waited for, the class that kept me going – idealistic, empathetic, talented and driven creatives who want badly to write and want only encouragement and a bit of help.

Their support for one another is the engine that really drives the class, I am the crank, the voice in the wilderness shouting keep on, keep on.

I knew they were talented, but it absolutely blew my mind to hear them read their penetrating work with such poise and feeling, and to see and feel the remarkable responses to them. They were quite a hit.

God, I thought, they really are as talented as I thought.

This really is a class of exceptional people, and it would take a fool to mess them up. I haven’t been able to do it.

Rachel Barlow has been a writing student of mine for nearly six years now, I think we will probably grow old together, although she is much younger than I am. Rachel is a painter, a writer, a cartoonist and publishes Picking My Battles one of the warmest and most beautiful blogs I know of. She has become one of the most successful painters in Vermont. She writes eloquently about her bi-polar condition, she is a loving mother and wife.

We had to stop buying her gorgeous paintings, we ran out of wall space.

The truth about Rachel is that she is brilliant at everything she does, I know no one who is more creative or enterprising that she is against tough odds. Her presence in my class is a great gift to me and to the students.

Creativity takes courage and Rachel is stuffed with courage.

The workshop  really is a wonderful thing I stumbled into, almost by chance. I can’t quite imagine how we all found each other, a group of people do supportive of one another and so filled with talent and character.

My first workshop upstate was in a library outside of Albany, the class was mostly comprised of homeless people, and two or three angry people on various medications. One of the “normal” students was Diane Fiore, a grounded and gifted writer, who paid me the great compliment of coming to see and hear the readings today. Her blog is under reconstruction, she has written regularly and beautifully for some years.

When my student Caroline Ashton walked through the door a bit late, I almost broke down and cried. I meet Caroline when Izzy and I visited her husband Noel in our hospice therapy work, he was gravely ill. Caroline, a former school teacher, and Noel, a teacher from Cornwall, were one of the most loving and devoted couples I have ever seen.

Caroline was consumed with grief and pain when Noel died, I always sensed the writer and poet in  her, from the very first time we spoke. I badgered her for years to join the class.

She disagreed, she was not a writer, she told me a million times, she had to work so hard to heal and reconstruct her life. And she has, with bravery and grace. She is one of the most amazing people. Carol loves singing, she is member of a local choral, the Battenkill Chorale.

It took me five years to get Caroline into my class, and she finally shocked me by showed up, denying she was a writer to the end. It was the battle of the wills, two stubborn and willful people. I won that battle, but only when Caroline decided I would.

One day she brought me a stack of  journals filled with beautiful essays and poetry. Not a writer, eh? Caroline is shy and humble, I wasn’t sure she would show up, I know it was not easy for her.

She did show up, and read several beautiful poems. She had many in the audience – all the seats were filled – in tears. Me too. What a journey, I’m on her to put her wonderful poems into a book, she is balking, but weakening. I remind her that I had hair when I first invited her into the class, I hope to live to see her blog.

Jackie Thorne read some of the haunting and honest and lyrical poems from her new book “To Catch The Light: Selected Poems.” She writes so beautifully about life and its emotional currents. You can follow her website, it’s called Creative Journey Woman.

Jackie is thoughtful and passionate animal rights activists, animals are as important an element in her life as they are in mine and Maria’s. She has written eloquently about our moral obligation to share the world with animals as not only just but a part of our history and destiny.

I am encouraging her to explore her philosophy, along with her poetry. She has a lot to say that people need to hear.

(I like to think of myself as the daddy of creative websites. If I have any legacy at all, it is all these wonderful little blogs all over the place I have harassed and annoyed people into starting. Blogs are our voices and our freedom.)

Amy Herring mesmerized people with the wry, wise and deeply heartfelt poems from her new book “Flounder And Other Poems.” She writes with such a great heart about dreams and passions and the struggles of the creative life. Amy is a literary writer, the real deal. Her words sing songs.

Jen Baker-Porazinki read a beautiful remembrance to the small but much-loved local hospital that closed  in our town some years ago, and where she trained as a physician. She wrote of a place where doctors could care for their patients in a way that is almost unimaginable now. She almost got through it without crying, a number of people couldn’t hear  it without crying.

Jen is a much-loved family practitioner in our little town, her writing is about the struggles of a caring doctor to keep her humanity in an increasingly inhuman system.

Susan Popper read eloquently about her search for a new life in upstate New York, and her farewell to the beloved ocean she left behind in Long Island. She has found her new ocean here, she wrote, in a beautiful hay-field and our countryside.

Susan is brave and exquisitely sensitive, she is going to Massachusetts next week to confront her life-long struggle with obesity, and to share her journey on her very authentic blog, Just Susan. Another ocean for her to cross.

In my class, I urge my students to find their voice, and to get their work out into the world, by any means available – blogs,  self-published or commercial books, poems, paintings, sketches. Any thing that works. They are beginning to do that, we have four books in the works in the class. In the workshop, we don’t permit agents, editors or corporate publishers to silence us or keep us from speaking up and out. We don’t permit anyone to silence us.

I have the most deeply felt admiration for Sandy Van Dyke, who is writing a book called “Whiteness.” Sandy, a compassionate Evangelical, spend much of her life as a white person teaching African-American students. She has traveled repeatedly to Africa to work on community development projects there, and wrote of her long friendship with and love for an African woman who died of Aids. Sandy’s poetry is deep and rich.

She is self-publishing her book and considering a blog.

Carolyn Smith is or newest and fascinating and mysterious class member, she moved to Cambridge recently from Seattle, she came with 13 cats she felt morally bound to bring.

She is creating a blog devoted to cats and other animals. She has traveled all over the world and read of her lyrical memories of life in Cambodia as a small child, her father was a British diplomat stationed there. I’ve always had this generalized idea that the British teach their students how to write. Carolyn is reinforcing this prejudice. she is easy with words.

And she has some fascinating stories to tell. I am eager to know more about her 13 cats. She is working on starting up a blog.

And then, John Greenwood, one of the most creative people I have ever met, a former milk truck driver, he has devoted his life to writing, and creativity, he is a profoundly decent and caring man, as well as a born creative. John reminds me that there are truly nice people on the earth, you will not ever find them on the news.

He was one of my first and greatest students. John says the writing workshop changed his life, John also changed my ideas about teaching. His blog, Raining Iguanas, is one of the most creative I have ever seen.

The feeling in the book store was warm and open and loving. It was quite special. I had to keep looking over at Maria to ground myself, like so many men of my generation, I never learned to show emotion, but I am full of it, especially today.

How kind of Connie Brooks to open up her bookstore to us, and how great of these people in my class to come and open themselves up to the world of the writer, to come out in public and show their fears and hopes and passions and vulnerability.

Writing is all about coming out, and today was a great coming out. It was an enormous affirmation for me, it made me so glad I had committed to teaching writing and kept on doing it for years. I knew these people would eventually turn up if I stayed at it, and how lucky I am that they did.

This was a wonderful afternoon for me, I came home so drained I collapsed on a living room chair and woke up more than two  hours later, Bud dozing on my chest. Creativity is my faith, writing my first love. Today was a celebration of both, and not just for me.

Thanks to the fates for a wonderful afternoon.

Bedlam Farm