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“Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell
24 November 2015

If You Want To Be Happy, Be…

By: Jon Katz
if You Want To Be Happy...

if You Want To Be Happy…

Maria came up to me tonight and hugged me, and thanked me for helping to find herself, to help her get her life back. Now, she knows, she said, that she would never lose it, never go back. She was crying. She told me that she loved me. Funny, I said, I was thinking the very same thing about you. My life began in so many ways when I met you, and I love you very much too. And so we stood in the doorway of the kitchen, hugging one another, holding the other close.

Pure happiness.

We've had some exciting years, some tough ones, but every day has been a great day, and the truth is, I have never been happier, or even happy before. What a miracle that is.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that "If you want to be happy, be…" It's good advice. I didn't realize until fairly recently that happiness is a choice, not the gift of deity or an accident of fate. We are responsible for our lives.  Lately, I've been writing about some heavy subjects — I've been in a reflective mood and I much enjoy expanding the range of my blog writing.

I'm getting lots of nice messages about my writing lately, people keep telling me that I'm maturing and deepening. I don't know about that, but my freelance editor, who is tough, says my writing is more beautiful than ever. It's very easy to please a writer, just praise them. The only word I ever want to hear about my writing is "brilliant," and I have yet to hear it from anyone but one book reviewer in Baltimore. I will always love her.

Something to strive for.

I do not intend for the blog to be relentlessly heavy, it is, in many ways, a celebration of life. But you can never completely relax. Today, the sometimes very creepy mayor of New York City resumed his war on the carriage horses. Time to saddle up again, I'll be writing about it tomorrow. The mayor concedes to friends he has to honor his promise to the animal rights people who spent $1 million dollars to defeat his major opponent in the mayor race, and have already given him $100,000 this year. Yuk.

They used to call that bribery, not it is called campaign finance.

The new plan is even dumber and sillier than the first ones, it will not succeed. I understand why the carriage trade people were reluctant to have a thank you ceremony. They do not yet feel there is anything to celebrate. More tomorrow.

One person messaged me to say there was a lot of serious stuff on the blog lately, and she hoped I wasn't depressed. I thanked her but pointed out heavy is not the same as depressing. Not in my mind. The thing is after I fell apart awhile back I promised myself I would learn about myself and share the journey.

Part of the journey is discovering, over and over again, the many things about me that were troubled or messed up. Quite a long list for one aging man, and I never seem to be finished. But that does not mean I am sad. I get sad once in awhile, it is cleansing and healthy. But never for long.

I am very happy. I am living my life in a meaningful way. I love every day of my life, being with Maria, writing, taking photos, working with the dogs, seeing my friends. This morning, Fate and I went out for our daily lesson, and one by one, the sheep went after her. They butted her, kicked her, charged at her,  stomped their feet, even trampled her. Once or twice, she yelped in pain or surprise.

Each time, she came right back in a tried again, and again. They could not discourage her, run her off, frighten her. She went eye to eye, nose to nose. It was intense, like one of those grand old boxing matches between sluggers. This is why I love Fate. She does not quit, she cannot be deterred or discouraged.

She inspires me, I like to think we mirror one another.

This is where we connect, I think. I will not quit or be discouraged either. My willfulness has brought many good and bad things to my life, but the truth it, it has finally brought me happiness.  For most of my life, I had no idea what happiness even was. I love who I am, what I do, who I do it with, where I am. I don't know that I could ever do better than that, it isn't something money or security could be.

In a sense, I have learned that happiness is a choice, not an accident. If you want to be happy, be. So I am.

For me, happiness is the total inability to make any evil or dishonest choices. When everything I desire is truly good and every choice not only aspires to be good but more and more, is good and attains that desire.  Then I can be free and be happy because everything that I want moves towards fulfillment. I often fail, but I often succeed, more and more all the time.

I will never be satisfied. I hope not, stasis and complacency are just a benign form of suicide. Happiness for me, I told is friend recently, is taking my head out of my ass and keeping it there.

Posted in General

The Holidays And My Post Office Box. Greetings From California

By: Jon Katz
My Post Office Box

My Post Office Box

I can't really explain how much pleasure it gives me to go to My Post Office Box – P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, New York, 12816 and get holiday mail and messages from all over the country like the one I got today from Paula Bagby in Pleasant Hill, California. They come from everywhere, some are typed, some are hand-written, they are intensely personal, affirming and uplifting.

They remind me that the blog is important to people, it is read everywhere, it matters.

Some of the letters have cash neatly folded inside, some are checks for subscriptions, some are just thoughtful musings and greetings. One woman, Sandra from North Dakota, sent $10 so Maria and I could buy ourselves a cup of coffee at the Round House Cafe. It means so much to me – and Maria as well – to get messages like these anytime, but especially over the holidays, the idea of holidays has been difficult for both of us, and in a sense, many of you are family to us.

I love the tone and feeling of these P.O. Box messages, many are written at kitchen tables over coffee in the morning. I sit at my table in the morning and read them in the same way.
"Hi, Jon," wrote Paula from California, "Thank you for posting the Cathedral of the Woods picture. Beautiful! Awesome!. I needed it. Thank you." Enclosed was a neatly folded $10 bill in appreciation, and Paula sent her blog url for

A sweet and simple and personal farm blog. Thank you Paula, for many things. For being so good and thoughtful, for sending me money you didn't have to send, for loving my photographs and my blog. It takes no time at all to send a nasty Facebook message, it takes time to get stationary and stamps, write a letter and send it.

That make sit all the meaningful to me. You don't need to send money when you write me at P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. But I love to go to the Post Office and check the mail in my P.O. Box. So many different voices, so many wonderful notes from everywhere. So much affirmation, the letters remind me that all of the work I do is worthwhile, it matters.

Happy Thanksgiving to Paula, and to all of the good-hearted people who have written and will write to me, especially over the holidays. I will be checking on my P.O. Box, every day..

Posted in General

Touching Our Wounds: The Warm And Tender Hand Of Empathy

By: Jon Katz
Empathy Or Hell

Empathy Or Hell

When I read the news sometimes, I think of Thomas Merton's definition of Hell: "Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves." It sounds like cable news to me, the politics of Washington, like our political campaigns or the dark side of Facebook.

Sometimes, when I venture beyond my farm, and am drawn into one of my gadgets, I think I'm there. I'm in the Hell Merton described. I'm glad I can come and go.

Hell is the absence of empathy, mercy or compassion. In Hell, there is no escape, and the reason the poor souls there want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them. Each recognizes in the other what they detest in themselves: selfishness and impotence and agony and fear and despair.

Our political and media world loves labels like "left" and "right and the sheep in human beings takes these labels happily and applies them to themselves and one another. I have come to see it differently.

I have a different idea of labels. I sometimes divide the world into two different kinds of groups: those who can empathize, those who cannot.

The term "empathy" is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Students of emotion generally define empathy as the ability to sense the emotions of other people, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. The absence of empathy is hatred and judgement – think of cable news again, or political blogs, or public comments on Facebook. If you can't imagine the emotions or feelings of others, you are free to dismiss as them something other than human.

Then you can hate them. Empathy makes that more difficult to do.

There are two kinds of empathy. "Affective empathy" refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to the emotions of other people; this can include mirroring what the other person is feeling, or absorbing the fear and anxiety of someone else. Fear is believed to be contagious.

"Cognitive empathy" refers to our ability to understand, even identify with the emotions of others. Psychologists believe that many people who experience autism spectrum disorders have a difficult time empathizing with others. Empathy is considered essential to healthy relationships, to finding love, to relating well to most people.

I guess politics creeps in a bit when it comes to empathy, because I am struck by its disappearance in our civic and political life. To me, empathy means identifying with the poor and the sick, the refugee and the child struggling to break out of poverty. In our culture, that is seen as belief of the "left, " not a common belief of Americans. The "right" views compassion differently as a rule: remove government and other obstacles from the poor and suffering, and they will prosper and have hope.

Political leaders without empathy attract citizens without empathy. They reinforce one another, on all sides of the political spectrum, and isolate almost everyone else. If you do not care for labels in our culture, you will be the lonely citizen, on the fringes.

For me – I am speaking only for myself – empathy means imagining what it means to be a terrified, homeless, hungry and suffering refugee, dreaming of a safe refuge for themselves and their children. I empathize very strongly with such people, perhaps because I could so easily have been one of them, my forebears were.

But if I am being honest about empathy, then I need to be cautious about denouncing the people who watch the horrific images and feel great fear. Is it possible to empathize with both? Of course. Empathy, I think, is like compassion. I easily grant it to people I like, not necessarily to the people who need it the most.

I remember feeling empathy for Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist whose macho life as a hunter was upended when he killed Cecil The Lion. I have no love of trophy hunters, but I kept thinking of his wife and children and employees and patients, many of them set upon by the raging mobs spawned by Facebook and Twitter, tearing through the lives of innocent people – even Dr. Palmer has apparently committed no crime  – in the name of loving animals.

I felt empathy for the children who slaughter people and blow themselves up before they have even lived. The young terrorists are not weaklings or cowards, wrote one journalist in Paris, they are brave in very twisted ways. How awful that they were converted by angry old men into murdering machines, the same way old men throughout human history send the young – all swept up in the virtue of their cause –  off to war to die and kill. Empathy asks us to consider that these broken people see us in precisely the same way we see them. Since they have no empathy for us, we become subhuman entities whose killing is not only permissible, but moral.

And so, they become inhuman, and must be killed themselves. The wheel turns and turns.

I can't help when I write about empathy but think of the battered carriage drivers in New York City, persecuted and harassed for years now, exhausted and fearful for their very existence. The first thing I felt about the animal rights activists abusing and tormenting them was this: they had no empathy, they could not see the drivers as human beings worthy of compassion and moral consideration. They could not grant them a single decent or human impulse, empathy makes is so much harder for us to destroy the lives of others or judge them.

I see the lack of empathy in the persecution of the farmer Joshua Rockwood, whose investigators could only see the ice in his water bowls, they could not see the person standing in front of them. Empathy would have served justice that cold winter much more than judgment.

Empathy, like compassion, is a drug. It can make you crazy, and there are lots of people who will hate you for it. It is best taken and shared in small doses.

Ultimately, the judgement about who is truly empathetic, one political label or another,  belongs to history.  I hope my daughter or her children see a country with common purpose, hopefully an empathetic one. I believe I need to live "small," not on a big stage but a small one. And empathy, for me, is important. It defines what it means to be a human being, it is the antithesis of Hell.

Empathy is the anti-dote to fear and argument, it makes hatred and self-righteousness impossible, when I am thinking about it. The experience of putting myself in the shoes of another has been revelatory for me, it has brought me all kinds of peace and connection and community. It is rarely easy for me, it is always worthwhile. It does much more for me than it does for them.

Making friends, for example, or being courteous to strangers, or offering help in small ways, one person at a time. The world is overwhelming if you take it as a whole. I think of Henri J. M. Nouwen's notion of empathy in Out Of Solitude: Meditations on the Christian Life. It is a wonderful description of the spirituality and beauty of empathy:

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

That is a friend with empathy.

Posted in General

Fate: Hanging Tough

By: Jon Katz
Hanging Tough

Hanging Tough

Fate is getting stronger all the time. This morning, one of the sheep charged at her, butted her and kicked her in the head. Fate yelped in pain, the first time I had seen or heard her do that. I pulled her back, but then she came right back and backed the flock into a corner of the pasture. She held them there for several minutes. She is a tough and determined dog.

In a sense it was a good lesson for her. She needs to pay close attention when she is close-up, they are still challenging her. But she has great resilience and confidence. In a few weeks, she will have them where she wants them.

Posted in General
23 November 2015

Portrait: Working Dog In The Woods

By: Jon Katz
Working Dog - Fate In The Woods

Working Dog – Fate In The Woods

I saw Fate standing in the woods looking for Red, I think, she is always aware of him. The sun rose up behind her and shone right on her, and I found myself looking at a portrait of a strong and fit young working dog, keen and ready to move. She is still a puppy, but more and more looking like a young woman.

Posted in General