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.

2 May

The New Era: First Reading At Battenkill. “Only The Forgotten Are Truly Dead.’

by Jon Katz
The First Reading

Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill.

We had a quiet but lovely reading last night at Battenkill Books to kick off the publication of “Talking To Animals: How We Can Understand Them And They Can Understand Us,” out today wherever books are sold.

This is my hometown bookstore and Connie and I were expecting a substantial crowd to launch my discreet book tour,  but there were only eight people in the audience, including Maria (and Red and Fate.)

Of course I would write about it, I have no secrets, and thus am free. I am only embarrassed by lack of effort on my part.

I confess when I came in for my grand entrance with the dogs and saw Connie and her mother alone in the bookstore, I thought of that wonderful Tess Gerritsen line, “Only The Forgotten Are Truly Dead.”

When I first began writing books, I entered a vast Borders Store in Virginia, and there was not one soul sitting in a single one of the 200 seats neatly set up for my talk. I thought I must have come on the wrong night, but the embarrassed manager assured me this was the right night. Eventually, one elderly woman came in out of the cold night and sat in the very rear of the big room and waited. She looked homeless to me, her sneakers had big holes.

I told myself that I would act the same way if every seat in the room was filled, and I gave one of the best talks and readings of my literary life. By the end, two or three employees – ringers, I think, because they took their ID cards off – came in and I got some polite applause.

It is true that failure is always more public than success, that was a good lesson for me.

That night, I resolved to be the same way when there  one as when there is an adoring full house.

Book readings are like that, some take off, some don’t. But you can’t short the people who show up.

Writers are complex, one I knew always quoted Mother Teresa when he came into an empty book store: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”

I told my friend Mother Teresa was talking about the poor and the hungry, for God’s sake, not dramatic and self-absorbed writers. She was all about perspective.

An empty bookstore is not a tragedy. It is part of the writer’s life, fearing being forgotten. Any man or woman who dares to open his soul to the world will experience it, and more than once.

I define myself not by how I deal with great success, but how I deal with different kinds of failure and rejection. Everything I want is on the other side of fear.

This is also part of the way we live in America now, we are letting go of the material world for the realm of screens and images. Everyone sees it, we talk to one another but we no longer know one another.

This is my 25th book, and I have been to a lot of great readings and a lot of grim ones, but I know the era of readings is fading, and that is the true nature of life, even in my own hometown. It doesn’t mean more than what it is.

I loved the crowd that came tonight, there were a number of true friends, people I loved, and I smiled every time I saw them. I remember too many times when there was no one for me to love, or to come to my readings, and I am fortunate to be alive and loved on the earth. This is my 25th book. I can die happy.

I’m not sure why the crowd was so small – the smallest ever for me in my hometown. It could have been the awful storm that hit yesterday, which caused a great deal of damage, or it could have been the rain or it could have been the angels having a bit of fun with me.

Or I could, of course, be over, the secret dread of every creative person. But honestly, I don’t think I’m there yet.

The truth is, we’ll never know. I’ve been on tours with 200 people one night and five the next day. Nobody ever knows why. Tomorrow, I’m coming into Battenkill to sign 200 more books to be shipped out. Anyone who complains about that is a fool.

The small crowd didn’t stop us from having a great deal of fun, intimate gatherings are often the most meaningful. I can look into the eyes of people and know right a way how I’m doing. I liked what I said about the book. I will perfect it a bit more with each reading. But it went well.

In a few years I doubt there will be physical book readings at ll, only video conferences, book readings in the digital realm. I don’t do nostalgia, I had my turn, it is somebody else’s turn.

The material realm is giving way to the digital.

More and more, people go on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat to meet and socialize with people, not to physical gatherings in the physical world. Art least 100 people told me they were excited to be coming to the reading and couldn’t wait. But I know that to be Hollywood agent talk, I know they mean to, but life often intercedes or distracts.

There are countless good reasons to stay home.

I am not into nostalgia, the days when I was driven around in limousines to four star hotels are long gone. It was common just a few years ago to  face huge and adoring crowds – 1,200 people came to see me in Forth Worth, Texas one night – but I can’t say I miss the old days. This is my time. I am happier and more creative now, for sure. I have my blog, the center of my creative life.

I am content with where I am. And I am still at it, I have yet another book to finish, and more readings ahead of me. This is the fascinating part, more than four million people read my writing regularly, but it is an effort to get a dozen to come and hear me talk.  I have never been read by more people in different places.

This is America today, I think.

And then there are sales.

The reports about my book sales are good. Connie has taken more than 700 pre-orders, a record for her store. My publisher e-mailed me tonight to say they have had a good response from their accounts. Barnes & Noble has ordered 3,600 copies and Amazon took 2,200, independent book stores  have ordered 1,600 copies of the book.

Those are good numbers  these days so early on.

My editor said Simon and Schuster has printed 14,000 copies of the book, he thought a second printing was “imminent.” I  hope so. Publishers have to fight for every single book. Mr. Trump is harming book sales by taking up much of the media that would have gone to culture and book coverage. In the media, it is pretty much all Trump all the time.  That is hurting a lot of young writers.  Maybe he will be quiet for a week or so. It does not seem likely.

Writers always say that you can tell who your friends are by who shows up at readings, but I do not feel that way about it. Failure is never fatal in itself, I think, but failure to change or accept change is deadly. One of my first writing students, the very gifted John Greenwood, a truck driver turned brilliant creative, drove two  hours to see me. I really appreciated that.

I don’t take it personally. I am willful and determined, and when I was eight years old I decided to be a writer one day, and decades later, that is what I am. And that is what I will be when I die.

Readings are important to authors. We work on books for years, and first night readings are a big deal, a coming out, the first opportunity to talk about our books and gauge the response in the eyes and body language and yawns of the audience. At readings, the book comes to life and becomes real. That happened to me at Battenkill tonight.

The book is alive, warm and very real.

There was only one yawn tonight, and when I saw two, I wrapped it up, it meant 25 per cent of my audience was tired. Red was stellar as usual, politely greeting everyone. And young Fate, at her first reading, jumped up on every single person and then lay down at Maria’s feet and went to sleep. A triumph.

I talked about the visualizations in the book, and the story of the New York Carriage Horses, and the urgent need to understand the real nature and needs of animals if they are to remain among us in our world. I talked about my efforts to communicate with animals, and to listen to them.

My editor said the book was full of “heart and wisdom,” and that feels good to hear.

He said there was growing excitement about my next book “Lessons From Bedlam Farm,” and that was wonderful to hear.

But the next few weeks belong to “Talking To Animals.” I will keep pushing those numbers up, I hope. I want that second printing, and also a third one. I intend to be relevant and to write books to the last gasp, even when nobody comes out.

If you wish to order the book through Battenkill Books (it is no. 1 in “Hot New Releases”), you can do so here. I will sign and personalize every copy and Connie will give you a lovely tote bag for free.

19 December

Something New: My Voice On The Blog

by Jon Katz

Tonight, I’m launching something I’ve been working on for some time – adding my voice and narration to the blog. I’m using an audio sharing app, Itunes and a voice recording program to post audio – I’ll do poems, commentary, excerpts from my books, occasional musings about philosophy, animals, and also some anecdotes from the farm. I share photos and words, why not my voice.

This is a powerful new tool for writers who wish to share their work and ideas with their readers, a new way of our inter-acting with one another. A kind of informal podcast. This will not replace words but occasionally supplement them, a new way to use the creative tools we have to…well, be creative.

My first broadcast, accompanied by a photo of Deb and Jake, two beautiful lambs, both gone now. And I read from my notes that helped me begin the first chapter of my next, next book “Lessons From Bedlam Farm,” out in 2018 and just underway. I use italic notes to help me get started on new chapters and these were about the lessons I learned in just one week of living on my farm, one of the great teachers in my life.

So welcome to the voice of me, hopefully the first of many and thanks for coming along on this ride with me as I seek to re-invent the life of an author in the new world. I do not intend to be irrelevant. Thanks for supporting me.  I love the challenge of creativity, and thanks to my good friend John Greenwood for inspiring me to do this and for helping me to do it. He did it a year ago.

I think my next offering will be a poem from Hafiz.

31 May

The Hubbard Hall Writers Read And Celebrate Their work

by Jon Katz
Celebrate Their Work
Celebrate Their Work

The Hubbard Hall Writers did a public reading tonight from their amazing work on their blogs and in their writing, photos, animations and art work. We had a full house in stifling heat and the writers and audience bravely sweltered through the night. I had a wonderful feeling to it, these gifted people who have been so creative and so supportive of one another, people came from as far away as Buffalo and the Midwest. John Greenwood, Diane Fiore, Dr. Jen. Baker-Porazinski, Rebecca Fedler, Kim Gifford and Rachel Barlow were funny, touching, uplifting and honest. What a privilege it is for me to work with these brave and gifted people. They were all nervous about appearing in public before the readings, but they didn’t seem nervous tonight.

The workshop was supposed to last four weeks, but is heading for two years and will probably go another ten more. In the Fall, I’m teaching a four part course on separate Saturday mornings at Hubbard Hall called “The Art Of The Blog.” There was a great feeling in the room tonight, how wonderful to hear their great work and see it celebrated. Red was stellar as usual, except for his fascination with the Irish step-dancing class. He is from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

Bedlam Farm