Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

24 July

My Muse Corner Seems To Grow

by Jon Katz

I’ve been writing pretty much non-stop since I was nine or ten, and I have to attribute this to something other than my great genius.  I am not generally superstitious, but I do get weird about muses.

I believe in them. I believe something in the world holds spirits that can motivate and inspire a writer. I still have every muse I’ve ever had; some are in the attic.

To be clear, a muse is someone or something that inspires a person to focus and do creative work. Men have historically used the term to describe the women that they have been in love with and made the subject of their work.

It seems somewhat sexist now, and I’ve never seen women in that way.

Times change. I’ve been in love with Maria for years, and she often inspires me, but she is not the subject of my work and the sole inspiration for it. Women do not exist to inspire my writing; they play a more significant role in my life.

I’m not sure where this muse addiction comes from, but I tend to put a lot of faith in objects and spirits that call out to me. They all seem somewhat alive.

When I am stuck, I look at them, and they unstick me.

Several of them are to the right of my computer now, some to my left.

One is a paper mache chicken Maria bought me in Bellows Falls, Vt, just last year. He speaks to the ridiculousness of life.

Another is a green pot filled with flowers from our garden – color and light.

Yet another is the crow positioned in the window; crows are smart and savvy,  he often scolds me to move. A fourth is my beautiful and ancient statute head; I don’t know who she he is or what she represents.

She exudes gravitas and inspiration; she has powers.

Recently, I added a Robo-light I found online. He reminds me of innovation and invention.

Froggy, the Magic Gremlin, is on the other side, so is a concrete swan and a statue of Mother Mary. Froggy represents many things to me; he is a smart-ass, defiant of authority, and capable of disappearing at will. He was a childhood TV star of mine.

In short, my desk is ringed with muses. You can’t be too sure. I wouldn’t describe myself as superstitious, but these are my peeps; they watch my back.

24 July

Saturday’s Zinnia Bouquet, From My Garden

by Jon Katz

Maria gave me a pruning lesson this afternoon, and I realized I was waiting too long to prune my zinnias,  my idea was for them to brighten the inside of the farmhouse all summer.

Times to get started. I’ll be doing a bouquet a day, all from the first garden I put together by myself. There will be more next year.

This is the Saturday bouquet, large zinnias, and small ones. I gave the big one to Maria for her studio, the small one is going to a friend.

I love this garden. I plan on one every day.

24 July

Eli: “I Love This Work.” When Work Is A Calling, Not A Job. Quiet Weekend At The Barn Raising

by Jon Katz

I’ve gotten close to Eli, the foreman of Moise’s Barn Raising. We just hit it off. Although Moise is front and center in the construction, Eli is clearly in charge.

I showed up at the site early, around 6:30.

He was the only person there; he was walking around checking the flooring; the others were allowed to sleep a little late today. Eli has been generous in taking time to see me about the construction; many of it is getting through.

He seems to be able to see everything at once; I’ve seen him head off at least a dozen potential troubles with falling beams or mismeasured planks. He is a protectionist – no shortcuts. He’ll order something re-done five or six times until it’s just right. And he is loud.

Eli can see a faulty measurement yard away, and he is intuitively safety conscious. Some of the younger workers are bold and fearless; he makes sure they are not taking unnecessary chances.

He is a charismatic and dominant presence, short, with a good-sized belly he pats from time to time.  He issues his commands, corrections, and warnings in a stream of German and Pennsylvania Dutch.

He can’t remember an injury on a barn raising he worked on.

It’s Astonishing when I think of all those men hammering nails way up on thin planks. One of the benefits of the raisings, he said, is that the young get to learn from the older workers.

Most of the people coming have raised a lot of barns. “They know what to do,” he said.

“But I have to keep an eye on them all,” he said.

Eli is different from Moise; he has a lively sense of humor – Moise’s is dry –  and he loves to kid – we always make each other laugh.

Whenever I show up, he comes over, and we talk – about the construction,  his life, his travels – his love of what he does. Sunday, there will be no work, and today, he said, it will be mostly clean-up and laying some planks. Yesterday, he said, they laid 300 planks in the barn.

The real show comes Tuesday and Wednesday, he said.

He explained how word of a raising goes out in letters to different Amish districts and is announced in churches. He won’t know how many workers will arrive until he sees them walking up to the site. “I always like to have a minimum of 75,” he said. “And I always have at least that many.”

The Amish call it “mutual aid,” and it is a central element in the faith. Church members help each other whenever needed. He is traveling and working all the time.

I asked him if he was having as much fun as it looked, and he nodded. “I love every minute of this,” he said, “we all do. We do it for each other, it’s hard work, but it’s not working at all.” He said it was his calling.

He also thanked me for bringing six bags of ice which he said is important on a hot and cloudless day. He said the ice coolers made a huge difference. Mostly, the workers drink powdered Gatorade mixed with water.

I am struck by how joyous these people are doing the hard work they do. “This is what it is all about,” Eli said, “we come together to help each other. That feels wonderful. We love  helping each other.”

We talked a lot about loving our work. “I think the people who love what they do are blessed exceptionally,” I said. “The farmers here all tell me that farming used to be a calling, now it’s just another job. That’s sad.”

I said writing was my calling; I also love my work. I think that is one of our connections; we both see the joy in what the other does and the importance of loving what you do.

Eli never gets paid; he would never take any money for the work.

He said doing things that help other people feel good. He could never have a job. He walked through what happens on the day of the raising Wednesday and told me the best time to come. It is a wonderful moment when the walls go up, he said.

He said the work would be light today and Sunday is not a working day. He said I might be wise to rest today; it will be intense from Monday on.

I am tired; I’ve been writing a lot, driving a lot, getting up early every morning, running around a lot. I’ll take today and most of tomorrow off. Just watching how hard these people work makes me tired.

We’ll see what happens on Wednesday; I’m the oldest person to appear on the site so far. The Amish show a lot of respect to older people when they are not thumbing wrestling with them.

Almost everyone nods, waves or says hello.

That feels good. The blog will be quiet today, except for photos of bright and colorful things.

23 July

Barn Raising Diary, Five Days To Go Friday, Dusk: “I’m Much Obliged To You, Johnny.”

by Jon Katz

Today’s barn raising, Day 16, wore me out. I got up before 6 to pick up ice cubes so the Amish barn workers could use the two ice and drink coolers I got yesterday.

I’m not working nearly as hard as those Amish builders, but then, I’m a lot older than they are.

Moise said the coolers really worked well and were needed.

I spent several hours visiting the work site, taking permissible photos unobtrusively, and talking to Eli and the workers about what they were doing and how they were building the barn.

Then I step back and stay out of their way.

I won’t bring the camera on Raising Day when the Old Guard shows up. Some of them are pretty cranky about outsiders.

I understand very little of what they say, but I am getting the larger picture.

It is a foreign language to me; the only thing I ever did with my father was riding to a baseball game every year.

Otherwise, I never saw him unless he had a lecture for me.

I’m what the shrinks call self-taught, which means I don’t know much.

In the afternoon, I drove to Glens Falls to pick up the family of Eli, the foreman – his wife and three children and Moise’s stepmother. She is the woman who helped raise him after his biological mother died.

We came home in a torrential downpour most of the way, very heavy rain and hail and wind on curvy country roads. You really have to pay attention. The drive took about an hour each way.

The baby didn’t cry once, and the two very young boys spoke softly to their mother in Pennsylvania Dutch several times.

The women didn’t speak much; we made a joke about Eli’s shouting commands in German all over the Amish world.

They were eager to see the Amish farms in Argyle and Cossauuna that I pointed out to them on the route home – three that we passed on the way home, three that were not there a year ago.

“Okay, we see them,” said his mother, “let’s get moving.”

Moise’s stepmother is a person of few words. I did get her to smile a few times.

I think the storm made her nervous; the rain was making visibility difficult. These women and children are very important to the men waiting to see them; I was cautious driving.

We all got to Moise’s farm in one piece. The women there were all hauling church benches stashed somewhere out in the yard to serve meals to the scores of Amish workers descending on the place. A week from Sunday, church will be held at the Miller Farm.

They were happy to see the newcomers. I carried their bags in and started to leave.

Both women wanted to pay me and reached for their purses.

“No, thanks,” I said,  explaining: “I just can’t take money for driving Moise’s  family.”

His wife smiled. “Well,” she said, “I’m not his family. You can take money from me.” But I couldn’t. Moise’s stepmother looked at me carefully, and I just shook my head no, and she said, “well, thank you.’

I come to the site three or four times a day; I am a familiar figure now; everybody waves to me or calls my name. The kids are eager to thumb wrestle; my sore thumb is holding its own.

I step back to the road when I want to take a photo, and you know what? When I do, there is not an Amish man looking at the camera.

As I stood on the hill, my aching legs in their new orthotics aching, Moise came walking up the hill to me as he often does.

I usually think he is coming to throw me off the property or reprimand me for writing about the raising or tell me people want me to leave.

Mostly, he comes up to say hello and tell me what he is working on – in this case, the extended roofs at the entrance to the barn on either side – and make sure I see it, even if I have no idea how it was made.

We talked for a while about who is coming and how they all write letters that arrive a day or before they come; that’s how they communicate.

Otherwise, he never knows who is coming or when. Some take a cab; some arrange to get rides on their own.

Moise said he would like to pay me for picking up his stepmother and Eli’s family. I know his stepmother is important to him; I picked her up once before.

I said no thanks.

He asked why, as he often does. Was I sure?

He never pushes it behind that.

“Moise, I can’t take money for bringing your mother home from the bus station. You’re my friend, and my idea of friends is that they do things like that for free, if they can.”

He thanked me again for bringing the drink coolers. “They really helped today. The sun was strong.”

It is very important to him to treat the workers well. I’ve helped with that. I find there are always ways to help, even if you can’t do the hardest work.

He said when the barn was finished; the roof would be visible from the highway. It would be more than 14 feet higher than it is now.

He asked me if I could pick up a group of people coming into Albany over the weekend. I said I doubted that I could,

I was pretty tired, and Maria and I had plans for the weekend; I want to spend time with her. And I wanted to see the barn come up. I’m attached to the story now; I want to see it to the end.

Moise said several times that he had other people who could drive; it wasn’t something I should do if I couldn’t or didn’t want to.

If anyone called me for a ride, I should tell them I couldn’t and that I would notify Moise, and he would find something else.

He said it was nice when I drove; people enjoyed talking with me. (I’m not sure his stepmother did, I thought.)

I do not have a fraction of his strength or energy; I will have to say no about driving to Albany.

I like that Moise never hesitates to ask when he needs something, and it never bothers him if I say no. I feel completely free to do that.

He pointed out a few things to me about the barn design that I didn’t know.

He told me what the newcomers would be doing. He asked me to try to be present at 6:30 on Wednesday; he said that was the most interesting thing to see: raising the walls.

Spiritually, it was one of the most important. I told him Maria wants to come. Sure, he said.

I asked him if he needed ice cubes in the morning, he said he did; that would be nice.

We stood silently on the top of the hill. He told me his arm was hurting from all the hammering; he thought he might have injured his rotator cuff.

I didn’t bother to suggest that he stop hammering so much, that wasn’t my place, and it would have been a waste of time.

He didn’t ask for my advice, and I wasn’t his mother. He’s been hammering all day, every day for more than a week.

Nothing in this world, including his arm falling off, would stop him from finishing this barn.

I could see as he rubbed his shoulder that he was in pain.

That would not stop him or slow him down. If he was telling me about it, it had to hurt. I asked if he wanted some cream  I had for muscle ache, he said no thanks, he had some linament.

We all get into the habit of telling people we care about what to do. I don’t want to get into that habit with Moise. What he does and doesn’t do is very complicated.

Moise is like an iceberg in some ways; most of him exist way below the surface.

We stood silently on the hill for a few moments; I think he was trying to take a breath from the work and the pain. I said I’d have the ice there in the morning.

We listened to the hammering and watched Tina chase after one of the horses barking. “Tina,” said Moise, “stop chasing after the horses.”

She lay down.

A few more minutes went by. Looking straight ahead at work, he said softly, “I’m obliged to you, Johnny.”

Then he walked back down to work. As he walked away, I yelled out to him: “You know, sometimes you sound just like John Wayne.”

He turned. “Who was he?” he asked.


23 July

Lunch Break At The Raising: Wait Until You See What They Did Since This Morning

by Jon Katz

I guess the reporter still lives inside of me. My nose twitches when I hear a siren, and when I smell a good story, I’m like a bloodhound on the trail of a fox.

I feel a little bit like Edward R. Murrow, a hero of mine, reporting about World War II from the roof of his hotel in London.

I do love telling stories, especially ones like this. I am learning along with everyone; it has become an exceptional experience.

I feel a little sneaky rushing in when they are eating, but they can all seem from their windows and several of them have already asked me if I can print out some of the photos so they can take me home.

Of course, good reporters are always sneaky, nobody really wants them around.

I came by during lunch break. It’s safe to take photos if nobody is there. The draft horses were there; they were brought into the shade and watered for the break. For the first time, I came up to them and rubbed their necks.

They liked it, one put his big head on my shoulder.

I was, as usual, astonished by the progress that had been made since the morning when I last stopped by.

Much of the flooring is in, and it will all be done by evening. Then the bigger work on the alls will add another 14 feet to the walls already built.

Donut Friday and the making of most baked goods were postponed; the family’s women are making and cooking food for the small army fathering around their barn.

I don’t know if the girls would like to be out on those rafters hammering; they are certainly busy preparing food and soon will be making quilts with the visiting wives and daughters – quilts are a big part of barn raisings., an important tradition.

If the girls are unhappy or feel excluded, they don’t show it. But I can’t say what’s in their minds. They seem cheerful and excited about all the visitors, and they are sure happy to thumb wrestle with me. Strong thumbs, everyone, I’m still winning, but my thumb is weakening and getting sore.

This winning streak can’t last forever, and these women are tenacious. I’m leaving shortly to drive to pick up some more incoming Amish,  I’ll get another look at the progress this afternoon when I get back. Thanks for all of your wonderful words, I’ve never received so many for one story.

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