For the approximately three of you who aren’t aware of my activities in Jon Katz’s Open Group for Bedlam Farm on Facebook, bear with me. All will be revealed herein, and the links will help if you read them.
On Sunday before the Open House, we were delayed getting out of Lake George, NY and the slowest restaurant in the universe, where, to my horror, I even started to feel a little unwell. No one should ever go to Lake George on a Labor Day weekend. Great, gulping waves of humanity create their own momentum. If you get caught in them, you will spend a lot of time fighting to move in your own desired direction, which in our case was away from the T-shirt shops and the mini-golf course. Having just emerged from the quiet of a historic inn, and before that the peace of a remote shoreline campsite, Lake George was jarring. Both of us dedicated claustrophobes, Travis and I sat in the car surrounded by the sea of people, our nerves stretching ever thinner, waiting for the moment one of them would break with a twang. Eventually we shook off the crowds and began moving again, this time to a restaurant with candles so pungent I started to become a little nauseated. Excellent, I thought. Green and queasy, like I’m on my way to the vomitorium. Just the look and feel I want for the day. Even Peak Nasty would have been preferable; they would’ve expected that. Fortunately, once I was out of the candle shop, my stomach settled down and my face stopped looking like I was undergoing a surgical procedure where the anesthetic hadn’t quite taken.
Google messed around with us a little, and sent us much farther south on Route 22 than we needed to be. At one point, we saw cars lining the road and we thought we’d arrived, but the numbers didn’t match. In retrospect, that might’ve had some comic potential. I wonder how long it would’ve taken us to realize we didn’t recognize any of the animals, and had crashed the wrong party.
We finally arrived at Bedlam Farm in the middle of Jon’s discussion about Red’s therapy work. I’d told Travis that with the hundreds of people that come to these things, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to meet Jon. But let me make a disclosure: I’m the only extrovert I know who is sometimes very shy at first in social situations. Once I’m comfortable with a group, then I run the freak flag to full mast. But my natural inclination at the outset is to be withdrawn and float awkwardly around the periphery of things.
That wasn’t going to happen here.
We were at Jeff’s cookout the night before, so I recognized Beth, Candy, Kathy, Debbie and Kate from the Group. Two and a half seconds after I found them, Tess and Lisa showed up, and I almost peed my pants with excitement. They hugged me anyway, despite my possible incontinence. Then from the corner of my eye I see a man in suspenders and an excellent hat striding across the yard toward me, bellowing “IS THIS THE FAMOUS JENNIFER??? I love your writing!”
Here is the thing. I never wanted to think of Jon as Jon Katz, [insert label here]. Jon Katz, Author. Or Jon Katz, Dog Guy. Or Jon Katz, Antagonizer of Border Collie Snobs. It’s been very important to me to remember that he is Jon Katz, Human. I have this feeling that when someone lives a public life, others can easily forget their humanity, forget their common nature, see them as a Thing Apart and project all kinds of stuff onto them. Gentle curiosity is far better than assumption when you’re interacting with anyone you might be tempted to label. Whole Humans are far more interesting than Labels.
So when I heard he was holding an Open House, I knew I would head east. Yes, I wanted to meet Red (and become one of his girlfriends) and Lenore, and see the hens and the donkeys and Flo, and that was all sublime. But what I really wanted to do was meet Jon Katz, Human. And in turn present myself as Jen, Fellow Human.
And so as he strode across the yard yelling that he loved my writing, all I could think of was that the world had become deliciously up-ended, that this was what everyone was supposed to say to him – and indeed what I felt myself. But somehow that doesn’t surprise me about him. This was far more Human and real, with all kinds of roles and expectations shaken up and stirred. It was quite wonderful.
My mother says that I never do anything until I have a damn good reason, always citing something about preschool and potty training, but I’m afraid she is right. This Adventurer (which I suppose is one of my Labels) is actually very calculated about risk, especially risks involving my most tender of hopes. Without going into the history of what Jon described to Travis as our “online writing affair” – most of which involves me taking several years to sack up and do it – Jon was the first person to tell me my writing was good whose opinion I couldn’t call into question for one reason or another. That was an enormous gift, because it stripped away the excuses I’d been using to avoid exposing my hopes to the harsh light of midday. I’m grateful for this gift, not just to Jon, but to chance, the universe, whatever. How many people just happen to run into such a potent source of encouragement? (Other than the approximately 600 on the Open Group?)
Jon has written that he has no idea what to say when people tell him he’s changed their life. And I won’t say that anyway, because it’s not strictly accurate; Jon helped me to change my own life. I could think of him as a Fairy Godfather of sorts, without the wings and the pink tutu, but that would be another Label.
So what to do with my outsized appreciation of the things that have been stirred in my life by Jon and the Open Group artists, both those who stayed and those who moved on? Jon wrote of gifts the other day. I know of nothing more I can do to express my gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given, from whatever source, than doing the best work I can and not wasting any precious, precious time.
Around the first of this year, I read this quote from Madeleine L’Engle:
“[T]he artist must be obedient to the work…I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist can either say, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly become the bearer of the work, or refuses…”
Obey the work. Everyone, obey the work.