Practice Makes Practice

I have said before that I want to want to do yoga more than I want to do yoga. I think what I want is the benefit of having done yoga, but I’m not even sure what I mean by that. Mainly that when I do do yoga, I want it to suck less.

What sucks about it? I’m bad at it. Everything hurts – whether or not I’m doing yoga, but more so when I try to twist and stretch and balance. I’m not flexible and I used to be flexible. That’s probably a lot of what’s wrong between me and yoga: the distance between my perception of what it should be and what it actually is for me. The distance between how I see myself doing it and how I actually do it.

1021171432

When I was a gymnast, I was flexible. I also practiced pretty much all the time that I wasn’t doing anything else. Not formal practice, but just repetition of things I wanted to be able to do that I couldn’t do at first. I wanted to be able to do the splits, so I split as far as I could (and often farther than my pants could) over and over and over, until I could get all the way to the ground.

I took the same approach to walkovers, round-offs, front and back flips, and endless attempts at aerials, though those only clicked for me one magical practice in the gym, never before and never after. I can’t say I would now recommend learning and practicing front flips or back layouts on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home – or any other sidewalk, for that matter – but I was nothing if not determined.

I had a similar approach to riding horses back then. If I decided I wanted to be able to jump up on a horse bareback, I would practice and fail, and practice and fall, and practice and scramble and gracelessly heave myself onto the horse’s back, until I could do it. Or later, when I wanted to get a certain feel in the canter transition – the feel that it didn’t feel like anything, really – I would do it over and over and over and over.

Scout3

Age and horsemanship wisdom tell me now that drilling a horse is a sure way to sour them, but there’s a world of difference between repetition for the joy of the feel of the thing, and the numbing drilling of a rider with visions of perfect dressage scores dancing in their head.

My riding life bears a striking similarity to my yoga life these days. I feel like it’s something I should want to do more than it’s something I want to do. The things I study and believe about the importance of developing a relationship with the horse rather than doing things to the horse, or making the horse do things, can create a wall that feels insurmountable on some days. I have no interest in competing in any discipline and if asked what my horsemanship goal is, or what I want that relationship between myself and my horse to look like, my answer would be the same as my yoga answer: I want it to suck less.

Scout8

Intellectually I know this is not a good goal. “Intellectually” is my problem, however. Nothing gets in my way quite like my mind. When I do yoga I have a little too much time and space for my mind, as Anne Lamott says, to think its thinky thoughts. The more I try to clear my mind, the thinkier my thinky thoughts get. The only time they get thinkier is when I’m around my horses trying to do the “right” thing.

There’s a good likelihood that the repetitive practice I used to do is a lot closer to the visions I have of what yoga – or horsemanship – should look like than anything I’m doing  now. It would look like doing something. Doing it badly, doing it awkwardly, doing it wrong, doing it laughing, and every once in a while, for a brief shining moment, doing it just the way I picture it.

Scout1

 

Pain

2f97ee23-e5c2-4683-9ee0-96d7978f8e80

About this time last year I spent a couple of weeks alternating lying flat on my back and perching uncomfortably on the edge of a chair due to a back injury. Though can we call it an injury really, when it hurt because I stepped out of the shower and it felt like lightning struck my back?

Once upon a time I hurt my back for real, doing active things like diving, or going over a jump all alone while my horse remained firmly on the take-off side, or trying to lift something I thought was no longer attached to my tractor only to find myself trying to lift my tractor. So maybe thrice upon a time is more accurate. Now sometimes it just goes rogue when I put on my socks, or open the cat food bin, or reach for a water glass. My favorite may have been when I was putting on my leggings to go to yoga class. It’s hard to walk into a yoga class and say “I’m here to twist myself into new and bendier shapes, but I can’t move much because I hurt myself putting on my pants.”

I am prone to psychosomatic illnesses. I used to think that term meant that you think you are sick when you are not. Imagined symptoms. I have since learned that it means an actual physical illness that is aggravated by a mental factor. Because my body (rightly, it seems) doesn’t trust me to take care of it, and (also rightly, it seems) thinks I need to be hit with a 2×4 to get the point, my psychosomatic illnesses present in the most obvious of ways.

For about a year and a half in my mid 30s I became incapable of talking about what I needed to talk about in my most important relationship. I have always been a talker – to a fault, perhaps – but I lost all ability to speak up when I needed to during this period. I had laryngitis maybe once in my life before this, but for that year and a half, at least every other month I lost my voice. Not a slight raspiness, I mean LOST. My voice was reduced to somewhere between a croak and an inaudible whisper. Over and over and over again, I became physically incapable of speaking. Circumstances finally forced me to start talking, and the laryngitis went away.

In a more concise example, I work from home but every few weeks have to go to the office. With alarming consistency the weekend before I have to go, I have a flare up of hemorrhoids. This is how my body (or my brain) handles me: “This is a PAIN IN YOUR ASS. Get it?” Got it.

This back thing, though. It’s not as clear to me. I have a couple theories. While my bout of back pain was at its worst last winter, Rose pointed out that while I couldn’t pick anything up, I could put things down that someone else has handed me. I find this significant, but I think there is more to it. It never got completely better, and in May I was once again felled doing something simple that I do every day.

I’ve seen doctors about my back pain a lot of times over the years. They either haven’t had much to suggest (take these drugs, don’t do those things), or they have wanted to do things I am not willing to do (steroid injections into my spinal column, surgery). Back pain seems to lend itself to so-called pain management without much to say about the cause of the pain or a solution to the pain.

I’ve read a lot about back pain, too, and I believe a lot of the things I’ve read. John Sarno claims that back pain that moves around (as mine does, from one side to the other, or from my lower back to my hips), or is accompanied by other pain (shoulder, neck, upper back – check, check, check) has its roots in emotional trauma, and I think that’s pretty likely. As previously noted, I’m not the best at recognizing that before my body takes over to demonstrate it for me.

I’ve tried a variety of body work, including standard physical therapy, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, massage. They all help me feel better in some ways, and they have all helped pains I have had in other parts of my body go away, but none of them really touch the lower back situation. This time I started looking at other techniques – the Alexander technique, which seems to be based on postural awareness (I haven’t gotten very far with that one yet). The McKenzie method – the exercises for that are the complete opposite of most back therapies I have tried. Both were quite a bit more helpful in terms of relieving extreme pain than most things I have tried, but did not get to the point of making the pain go away, and then it started to get worse again.

Eventually I found myself at the landfill, barely able to get in and out of the truck. Rose was out of town and as I drove away, feeling pretty sure I was going to either pass out or vomit from the pain, or maybe both, I tried to ward off a panic attack while weighing the benefits of going home or driving myself to the emergency room. I was pretty sure the ER would not in fact help much, though all the drugs were sounding pretty good right around then. I drove home, crawled into the house, and collapsed on the living room floor with my phone to google all the ways in which terrible lower back pain might mean I was dying of something rare (so much for warding off the panic attack).

When I got tired of that, I started to google sacroiliac dysfunction, because it seemed like most of my pain, always, was around my SI, even if it manifested in different spots on my back. I had a tennis ball in reach, and as there was little chance of me using anything that wasn’t in reach, I looked up SI trigger points. This is an extremely undramatic story of healing, in which I moved a tennis ball around to different SI trigger points until I no longer felt like I was going to die, or like I wanted to. For the rest of that day, and the next day, I had to visit with the tennis ball about once an hour. I had a nice collection of ass bruises, and while lying on the tennis ball on the bruised parts over and over and over didn’t feel great on the bruises, I started to feel like maybe I could move like a person again. I was able to increase the time between “treatments” over the next few days. It’s been a couple of months now, and I carry a tennis ball with me everywhere I go, but the chronic hip pain I have had for several years is completely gone, and I haven’t had lightning bolts to the back since May.

As with every other time I’ve had out-of-the-blue back pain, I’m not sure I’m any further enlightened about the cause. I’m happy to have found something that makes it feel better. I not so secretly believe that trigger point therapy is magic. I have a feeling that the real magic for me was finding out that there was something I could do to help myself, rather than looking to someone else to fix me. And maybe, just maybe, I have learned a little bit about how not to pick things up that are not mine to carry around.

d77c4e65-f1fe-42dc-ae46-756d08ac6dfa

 

 

 

Heart Chakra Pig

A few years ago I had the experience of doing something that I thought was following my dreams that turned out to be me trying to follow a lifetime of accumulated “shoulds.” Some were more obviously external – I “should” finish a college degree – and some were more internal – because I connect with animals in the particular way I do, I “should” be a vet or a vet tech.

What I did in the end was break my own heart many, many times over. And when my heart got that broken, all the careful construction I had done to keep myself together when I was falling apart just came undone.

Two things happened that brought me back to myself. One was simply that I went away – to the pure beauty of Telluride, Colorado, and the soul-soothing sounds of live music (my own personal religion) – and I looked up and saw mountains, and nature, and beauty, and I remembered who I was, inside my heart where it counts. The other was the pig I call the Last Straw Pig. Rose hates it when I say that I had reached the point of looking at a pig I was about to euthanize and really struggling with whether to inject the barbiturates into the pig’s ear or my own wrist, but it had gotten that bad. And I realized that I literally could not keep living doing what I was doing.

This pig represents that turning point in my life. He represents my dreams, and knowing when it’s ok to admit that something that I once dreamed of turned out not to be what I wanted or needed or could handle in my life. He represents admitting that my heart has to win out over my mind and I have to listen to the sound it makes when it breaks, and to feel what that feels like, and to act on it. He represents all the feelings I have tried to ignore in my life in favor of logic. He represents finally, finally walking away from a lifetime of worrying about “should” and just accepting what is. Including that pigs can be any color you want them to be, and that you never know what will lead you back to your own heart.

Watering the Horses

FB_IMG_1531747306572

About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

FB_IMG_1531747310852

Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

F and G BW

My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

a3d62732-6247-4886-be85-228c9383d575

Let Him Eat Carrots

Guinness1

Limbo is not my favorite place, yet here I am, entering week four.

I have a horse who is sick. REALLY sick. For many of the days of these limbo weeks, I have gone out to his field with the certainty that this will be the day I find him dead in his field, or down in his shed, unable to get up.

There are several blog posts I have started in my head, most of which are not about this horse, but I can’t seem to write, or do much of anything else, right now. Then I thought maybe I would write about this horse, but we are in limbo, and I don’t know how the story will end. How can you write a story when you don’t know the ending? How can you write anything at all, when all you seem to be able to do is stare at the horse?

He has lost at least a quarter of his body weight, if not more. For a minute there, he went from being a fat horse (“when is that gelding due?”) to being a thin horse, and the weight looked good off of him, but it came off too fast, and it came off because he was simply not eating. He is not quite a skeletal horse, but if you saw him in my field, you would probably call the ASPCA. I probably would, if I saw him in your field.

The vet has made several visits, and has run many tests, all of which have been inconclusive. His symptoms add up to… symptoms. They might mean a disease (one of several), or they might just be what they are because he’s not eating. The why of his not eating remains a mystery. It is a mystery to the vet. To the dentist. To the chiropractor/acupuncurist. To the craniosacral healer. To the farrier. To me. If it is not a mystery to the horse, he’s not enlightening the rest of us.

Small things have made him feel a bit brighter. He loves the fact that we have opened his gate so he can wander the lanes between the fields. None of the other horses get to do that. He teases them – and lets them flirt with him – over the fence. His walk is shaky and a bit sideways from weakness, but he covers quite a bit of ground in a day. He recently got to roll in the sand arena and I felt like I had taken a kid to the circus.

Some days he likes to be out with his best buddy, but some days when I open the gates between their two fields, they simply switch fields. Sometimes I find them crammed into one ten by twelve foot run-in shed, close enough that another horse could fit next to them, if they ever entertained the idea of letting another horse into their little world of two.

This is not my first rodeo with a possibly dying horse, but it’s hard in a different way. For one thing, he does not feel in my heart as if he is a dying horse. There have already been more than a few days when it would have made sense to call the vet out to put him down, but he is giving me no indication that it’s time and I have never had an animal not let me know. Whether I have accepted it or not is a different story, but they always say.

For another thing, the shades of so many who have preceded him are surrounding me right now. Not just the animals, but the humans, too. There are the animals about whom, years later,  I wonder if there was something I missed or did not try. There are the animals about whom I wonder if I waited too long.

There is my father, stumping up the sidewalk to Starbucks for a coffee and a natter with his neighborhood cronies, shadowing my view of the horse meandering up the hill to visit over the fence with the horses in the next field.

There is my mother, the week she stayed with us the first time she got out of the hospital, and me then, trying to make small, artfully arranged plates of food to tempt her to eat – and me now, creating a cafe tray in a flat rubber pan to give the horse options of things to eat with none touching the others in case the wrong thing causes him to eat nothing at all.

The second – and last – time my mother got out of the hospital, the only thing she wanted was orange sherbet from Le Lion de la Nourriture (known to most of us as the Food Lion). For a time last week, the only thing the horse would eat was carrots. I’m pretty sure a horse can’t subsist on carrots alone, but he was still reasonably comfortable, and he really enjoyed his carrots. If every day might be his last day, I figured, let him eat carrots.

On Sunday night, I was sure we had reached the end of the road. He was no longer even interested in carrots. When I first looked out in the fields Monday morning, I thought he was down – in the exact spot I plan to bury him when the time comes. When I went outside I realized that when he stands in that spot he is over a rise in the hill, and it looks like he is lying down, but he was not.

We spent much of Monday waiting for the vet, and then talking to the vet and having the vet examine the horse. The vet did not quite say “it’s time to euthanize this horse,” but he did raise it as a possibility in the near future. This was not a surprise, or a new idea. And yet. It doesn’t quite feel like time.

The part of Monday not spent waiting for the vet or with the vet, I spent being frantic. Not doing anything, but just feeling like I was coming apart at the seams. Some time after the vet left I realized that during the decade in which we experienced the death of four horses, six cats, one dog, four parents, one dearly beloved aunt, three friends, and our children’s grandmother, we barely had time to mourn before the next death was upon us. We’ve had a respite for almost three years, during which mostly I think we remembered how to breathe, but I’d be hard pressed to say we have recovered. That’s a lot of grief for one horse to bear, when it all comes bursting out at the seams.

On Monday during the vet visit, we talked about what we would be willing to do – treat for everything it might be that is treatable – and what we would not be willing to do – drive him two hours to a horse hospital where they might say “Oh, this is what he’s dying of, isn’t that interesting?” After the vet left, we rounded up the rest of the things we had decided to treat him with. Another shadow crossed my path, reminding me of laying out the many, many pills my father needed to take in his last months, so that he – or his care giver when I could not be there – would not lose track.

Today, for whatever reason, the horse has decided to eat. He has eagerly consumed all of six small meals. Unlike my mother, who could be tempted by half a bagel with cream cheese and lox, plus a few vibrant raspberries and enormous blueberries, he is content with his senior feed. Nutritionally it may be the equivalent to Cheetos, but now is not the time to pick nits about grain quality. He ate a fenugreek flavored treat, which yesterday he would not even look at. He ate a whole handful of baby carrots.

I still don’t know the ending to the story. Tomorrow, I will still walk out to the field with my heart in my mouth if I can’t see him from the house. We may have him for many more years, or we may have him for a matter of days. Either way, he will be with us forever.

Guinness

 

Hitched

Everyone has their own way of preparing for a horsemanship clinic. Some people work their horses like they are getting ready for a show, or a test. Some people read everything they can get their hands on about or by the clinician. Some people shine up every inch of their horse and their tack. Some people plan their outfits. Some people buy new tack, because who doesn’t like an excuse to go the tack store?

Many of us who don’t travel with our horses regularly (and even some who do) spend some time working on – or at least fretting over – the horse trailer. Will my horse get on it this time? Do I need a backup plan to take a different horse if the horse I want to take won’t get on? If I need the clinician to help me work on getting my horse on the trailer, how do I get my horse on the trailer so I can get it to the clinic so the clinician can help me get my horse on the trailer?

Rose and I are going to a clinic soon and we are on the step before the step about the horse and the trailer. If you have ever put together IKEA furniture with your spouse, or hung wallpaper with your spouse, you may know the step I am talking about: hooking up the horse trailer with your spouse.

We have not taken the horses anywhere for a lot of years, and in the interim, we have acquired a new horse trailer. It is much better than the old horse trailer, and I look forward to not coming home with more stories from the horse trailer wars. However, hooking it up is a learning experience. It has led to some of my less proud moments – the kind of moment when you hear yourself saying things like “We really need to work out some less frantic hand signals,” or “No, I CAN’T see the exact middle of the tailgate because I’m DRIVING THE FUCKING TRUCK, not perching on top of the cab!”

And of course after this we want to go get the horses from the field and calmly load them.

One thing I like about clinics is that no matter what I go there to work on, I always wind up learning something I did not plan to learn, or did not even realize I needed to do better. How lucky for me to have the learning start before we even leave our driveway.

 

 

Ruby

IMAG0088

We said goodbye to Ruby, our 18 year old truck, this week.

 

Ruby drove us and two of our horses out to Colorado one summer, 14 years back. We drove 3,200 miles round trip, blew out two tires on the horse trailer and needed new brakes on the truck by the time we got home, but she got us there and back. Still one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

On day 3 of the trip home, after the second trailer tire replacement, in the western Maryland mountains in heavy fog and light rain, we were not sure we were going to make it. One of our main cds that trip (remember cds?) was Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, and one of our two favorite songs on that cd was When It Don’t Come Easy. I don’t know how many times we listened to it that night.

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight

Ruby moved us to our current home. We were in a rental that we loved and wanted to buy, but the owners did not want to sell. When we found this place, Ruby sat in the parking lot of the title company at settlement, hitched to our horse trailer loaded with all the stuff we didn’t want the movers to move, waiting to take us to our new house, which has now been our home for almost all of those 18 years.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

She hauled our horses to horse shows, clinics, trail rides, the horse hospital, and best of all, home from the horse hospital. She hauled loads of everything we needed her to haul: hay, wood pellets, horse feed, stone, sand, lumber, boxes and boxes of books from my dad’s apartment after he died.

She carried our family on vacations from the mountains to the ocean.

She was the favorite vehicle of every dog we have had.

She carried our kids from ages 9, 11, and 15 to 27, 29 and 33, and moved them into and out of dorms, apartments, and houses.

I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home

In those 18 years, we have said goodbye to all four of our parents, my favorite aunt, three friends and mentors, six cats, four horses, and one dog.

We’ve had more jobs than I even want to think about.

You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction

During those 18 years Rose and I nearly split up, and then later, got married. In fact, during those 18 years, it went from being unthinkable to possible to law, that we could get married.

Those 18 years have seen our children start and end relationships, become engaged and unengaged, get married. We drove Ruby to our middle child’s wedding, come to think of it.

So many things that I had before
That don’t matter to me now
Tonight I cry for the love that I’ve lost
And the love I’ve never found
When the last bird falls
And the last siren sounds
Someone will say what’s been said before
Its only love we were looking for

Ruby was hard on brakes, but she never broke down, refused to start, or left us anywhere. She didn’t have a lot of oomph towing up hills, and her gas mileage ran to gallons per mile, but she went everywhere we asked her to go.

She still has a lot of miles ahead of her, and she has gone to a friend, so it’s almost like she’s staying in the family. But not quite. Our new truck has got everything we want and need, but it doesn’t have 18 years of memories. Farewell, Ruby, and thanks for taking us to where we needed to be.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

(quoted lyrics by Patty Griffin, When It Don’t Come Easy)