Boundaries

I haven’t seen many of my friends or family for most of this year, and I’m feeling hug-deprived. I am also one of those people who is only half jokingly saying “Let’s keep on wearing masks and not shaking hands and staying six feet away from each other forever!” There’s nothing I mind about not being crowded while in line in a store, or about not having near-strangers say “Are you a hugger?” and not wait for an answer before they move in and grab me while saying “I’M a hugger!”

I don’t come from a hugging family. We would hug when seeing each other after a long absence, but not so much on a day to day basis. My father was prone to patting us awkwardly on the head, arm, or foot in a way that makes me understand why animals flinch away from some human versions of touch, although inexplicably cats were always drawn to him. Perhaps because he did not ever try to pat them, even when they jumped on his lap. I have said that I sometimes think I get on with animals as well as I do because my mother was like a very well read and articulate cat, which come to think of it may also explain why she was drawn to my father. My mother and I hugged much more in my adult life than in my childhood – but I think this is true of all my immediate family, and probably because as adults we almost always see each other after a long absence.

When I was twelve, I started a new school with a lingering hippie reputation and I discovered there is a whole population of people who hug. It took a little getting used to but I not only got used to it, I learned to positively enjoy having friends to hug.

Lucky me, pandemic or no, I have animals that I get to touch. On the two extremes I have the dogs (huggers all, except for when they are not) and the cat (“touch me and you will bleed” is her default mood). In the middle are the horses.

I’ve been benignly neglecting the horses, along with most other things, for most of this year. A couple of weeks ago, Tabby cut her leg – nothing dire but bad enough to warrant stitches and two weeks of bandaging. As long as I was changing the bandage every two days, I also took the grooming box out with the medical supplies. Since I had to tend to Tabby’s leg, I figured at least I could offer grooming and see if she was interested, and then as long as I was out there I figured I could check in with the geldings too.

Grooming gloves are my favorite grooming tool. I can use them as curries and also for a massage. I can feel more of what’s going on with the horse’s body, whether I’m feeling for bumps or scabs, or feeling for where they stiffen, flinch, or lean in. The horses prefer them too. They seem to appreciate my ability to feel what I’m doing instead of having a chunk of stiff rubber or wood between my hands and them. Go figure. I have a very clear memory from a lot of years ago of watching a friend groom her horse while telling us how much he hated being groomed. She was talking to us the whole time she groomed him, focusing on her human visitors while scrubbing vigorously all over her horse’s body with one of the hardest and biggest curry combs I have ever seen. If I were the horse, I would have kicked her.

That said, I have done my share of oblivious grooming over the years. I get into a groove of what I have to do, and forget to pay attention to what I am doing and to how the horse is reacting to it. Whether my “have to do” is about getting tack on the horse so I can go for a ride, or about needing to groom the whole horse because that’s how it’s done, it causes me to stop listening to the actual horse in front of me.

Horses don’t touch each other all that much. They stand near each other, and they do something we call mutual grooming that doesn’t look anything like what we call “grooming” when we do it to a horse. And yes, I do realize that in referring to what the horses do I said “mutual” and in referring to what humans do I said “do it to.” Horses will ask each other for the scratching they want, and they will move around to get the right spot scratched, and they will leave when they are done or if the other horse is scratching too hard or not enough or in the wrong place.

Our current horses all have different feelings about being groomed. Niño generally loves it. He loves to be touched, and he really leans into anything we do with him. Even so, he has days and places he wants to be left alone.

Finn’s approach has always been to position the part that is itchy or that he wants to have massaged directly in front of me. For a very long time, I would try to insist that he stand still and let me go through my grooming routine that starts on the left side at the top of his neck, works all the way to his tail, and then repeats on the other side, finishing with his head. After a while I started to not worry so much if he moved around or what order I groomed him in, but I was still adamant that I touch all the parts. It’s only in the last year or two that I just let him tell me what he wants and leave it at that. I can visually check for cuts and bumps, and if I need to check something particular he’s fine with that. But if he tells me he has one itchy spot on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip, and then he walks away, ok.

Tabby is hot and cold. She has places she likes us to really scrub or massage, and she has places she’d prefer we not touch, and she has days she just wants to be left alone. I get this. All of it.

It would be easy to attribute their different approaches to grooming to breed, or gender. Horse people love to generalize about breeds, though our small herd goes almost completely against breed stereotypes. As for gender, there’s an often repeated saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, but you negotiate with a mare. I don’t so much find this to hold true, either. Horses, like people, and dogs, and cats, and pretty much every other species I can think of, are individuals. They also have moods, and different levels of stiffness or pain on any given day, and they don’t react the same way to all people, or even to the same person on different days. I can guarantee that while I may go out on any old day and approach Finn with my ideas about what Finn is like and how Finn reacts, he’s busy tuning in to what is in his environment that day, at that moment, which includes me and my mood. Any horse being approached by a human with a grooming box and a lot of intensity – “I’m a groomer!” – may take the option to walk away, if given the choice.

I may not have to deal with unwanted hugs right now, but I also don’t get to have the wanted ones. What I do get to do is work on paying attention to the signals I’m getting from and giving to my animals who are, as always, my best teachers. Other people may have their pandemic bods, or their pandemic crafts, or their pandemic home improvements. I’m working on my pandemic boundaries. I’m sure the horses won’t mind.

Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.

Mix Tapes

We’ve been in a clearing out mood recently. I know a lot of people are, though I can’t say it’s particularly pandemic-related for us. For several years we’ve been talking about putting sticky notes on all of our belongings that say either “going to Colorado” or “not going to Colorado.” The specific location, or even the fact of a move, is not the point as much as is the question: if we wouldn’t move it somewhere new, why are we keeping it here?

The kids are all pretty settled in their adult lives away from here, and if their old belongings don’t have sentimental value for them, maybe we don’t need to keep hanging on to them. I mean, we’re the parents, so some things will always have sentimental value for us that they don’t have for the kids, but do we really need multiple boxes and backpacks of never-gone-through end of school year stuff from elementary and middle school?

Most of the things we have accumulated are ours, and not the kids’, however. Here at my writing desk I have a smattering of books, gifts, hobbies, and outdated technology that I simply haven’t organized, put away, or gotten rid of. In immediate reach of my left hand is: a collar tag for Cody, the box his clay footprint came back in from the crematorium earlier this year, two Liberian lappa fabric bracelets, three cables for computer peripherals I can’t identify, a horsemanship journal I started at a clinic in Colorado in 2004, several blank greeting cards for various occasions, a letter from the census bureau about how to electronically complete the census (which I did back in the spring), a Zentangle drawing book, a bandana, a mostly empty tube of toothpaste, a folder from Scout’s allergy vet with instructions I only needed last January, a computer mouse I haven’t been able to find for months, and a mix tape (literally a cassette tape) I received for my, let’s see, maybe 20th birthday. This is in a space roughly ten by twenty inches on the edge of my desk. Small wonder the whole house, not to mention the barn, the garage, and assorted outbuildings, feels a bit overwhelming. Also small wonder my go-to approach is to just get rid of everything.

When I moved from Vermont, where I went to college, back to my parents’ apartment, and then two weeks later to the farm in Maryland where I started a job, I packed everything I owned into my 1964 VW Bug, including the travel crate containing my three cats. Among the things I brought with me was a box of I don’t know what, because I moved it from the car to the room I slept in at my parents’ place (or maybe I left it in the car; either thing sounds plausible) to the closet at my house on the farm. When I moved from there three years later, having never opened the box, I just threw it away on the theory that things unexplored and unused were unneeded. I still have the desire to close my eyes and get rid of things.

When I look is when I start to have trouble. Not with some things – I got rid of easily half my clothes, probably more, without a thought, and I went through every item. In Deep Creek by the splendid Pam Houston, an author who makes me want write more and who also makes me want to give up writing entirely because she appears to have already had most of the thoughts in my head and has written about them better than I could, her description of identifying what she wants to pack in case of fire evacuation includes this: “I face my closet and can’t find one single stick of clothing I care whether or not I own.” A much less dramatic reason in my case, but a perfect description of my feeling about clothes.

The mix tape on my desk, though. It’s nowhere near a cassette player – in fact, the only cassette player in the house is currently in a pile of deconstructed stereo we haven’t made up our minds about yet. I think I pulled it out because I wanted to accurately cite the title (The Whinin’, Cheatin’, Drinkin’, Cussin’, Lyin’, Cryin, Dyin’ Birthday Tape), or maybe I was looking for one of the song names (my introduction to country music, in case the title didn’t give that away). I got rid of most of my cassettes – the store-bought ones, or the ones I made of albums I can easily get in another form – earlier this year. But I still have a box of mix tapes, and a few whole albums taped for me by someone else, in the basement, and I keep walking past it and thinking “I’ll decide about those later.”

I haven’t listened to any of those tapes for years, but just looking at the handwriting on them is enough to bring back memories. Some of them are tapes I made. In college in the midst of a pre-coming-out panicked depression, I made a tape with the title Trouble, Trouble, Trouble with every song I could think of about being troubled, having the blues, and just general misery, on the theory that if I wallowed in it for long enough I would eventually realize I was wallowing and snap out of it. Fact: I have never listened to that tape without starting to laugh, even if it’s not till the middle of side two. There’s one called Since My Phone Still Ain’t Ringing, I Assume it Still Ain’t You, which I made about, if not exactly for, someone I sort of dated in my early 20s. There’s a Yaz tape made for me by my best friend my senior year of high school, and a Robert Earl Keen Jr tape made for me by my sister. There is a tape that when Rose listened to it the first time made her say she felt like she was reading my diary, made for me by someone I’ve never met but a mutual friend thought we’d have the same taste in music and she was more right than she knew.

There’s a whole section of tapes Rose and I made for each other when we first became friends and then when we first got involved. It’s a bit of a musical time capsule – both in terms of what music was out at the time and in terms of the phases of our relationship (Songs for Louise from Thelma is still among my favorites). As I type this, Rose is listening to a playlist that has this vibe in the kitchen (I hear Melissa Etheridge, and a paragraph or two ago, Don Henley). I’ve thought about taking the mix tapes and remaking them as playlists, but there’s something about the handwriting that stirs my heart in unexpected ways.

I can make a playlist now without even listening to the songs. In the mix tape days, there was a lot of planning. Ordering and reording of songs on paper before I started taping. Deciding which songs revealed too much, or didn’t say it quite right, or felt like they came from somewhere in the most honest part of me. Stacks of vinyl, other tapes, and eventually CDs to pull songs from. Writing out the song list – include the artists with the song names? Write on the factory insert or make my own? The point of it all, of course, was in trying to show someone else what was in my heart. The opening chords of any one of those songs can sneak up on me and make me cry, or make my heart swell, before the words even start, remembering how I felt the first time I listened to one of those tapes Rose made for me. Would I save them in a fire? Hard to say. Would I move them to Colorado? You know, I think I would.

Three Little Words

A friend recently reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, which reminded me of one of my favorite guitarists, Tony Rice, and one of my favorite albums of his, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. To share this with my friend I pulled up YouTube to pick a song from that album, and settled on I’m Not Saying.

My sister and I often listened to the double record set Gord’s Gold in high school, and this song was one of our favorites. For quite a few years we borrowed from it when we wrote letters to each other (remember letters?) – one of us would sign “I’m not saying that I love you” and the other would reply in the next letter by signing “I’m not saying that I care if you love me.”

“I love you” is not something we said in our family. It wasn’t until I went to college and heard other people talking to their parents on the phone that I realized that many – perhaps most – people I knew ended phone calls to their parents by saying “I love you.” The Gordon Lightfoot song was both a joke and the closest we came to actually saying the words within our own family.

My grandmother had a dresser drawer filled with drawings we made when visiting her, and letters or cards we wrote when we were young. Almost all were just signed “From” and then our name. Often our whole name, as in “From Tessa Pagones” in penmanship one step away from writing half the letters backwards. My whole family has always talked easily about literature, politics, movies. We have not ever been given to talking about personal things, closely held thoughts and beliefs, or feelings. Especially feelings.

When I started, at age 19, to say “I love you” when getting off the phone with my parents, my father started to begin his conversations with me by picking up the phone and saying “Love me!” It would be another 19 years and my mother would be dead before I heard him say “I love you.”

When my sisters and I we were kids we never had a Christmas tree, and one thing we all agreed on was that as soon as we had our own places, we would have our own Christmas trees. The three of us had varied ideas about what “normal” kid things our kids should get that we did not have: piano lessons, swimming lessons, band or orchestra practice, the chance to fill up on bread at a restaurant if they wanted to, and definitely a Christmas tree. I don’t know, if anyone had asked, that any of us would have said “A house where people say “I love you,” but it was something we all created. Probably in all cases (certainly in mine) with the help of one or more other parents who say it more easily.

My kids say “I love you” easily, even to each other. There are a lot of moments as a parent that make you marvel at your kids for how like you they are, how different from you or each other they are, how they have some talent that seems to have come out of thin air and is unique to them. Hearing my kids say “I love you” to their siblings is something that will always make me feel a little bit of awe.

Horseshoes

“Horseshoes are better than circles. Leave space. Always leave space. Horseshoes of friends > Circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.” – Glennon Doyle

It started with a book.

Of course, it started before that. I found the book because of Rose, and I found Rose because of a horse, and I found the horse because… I could keep going backwards. Many if not most of my own stories either started with a book or started with a horse. Since I can’t tell all the origin stories at once, this one starts with a book.

This particular book I picked up with the intent to rifle through it, scoff, and point out what bullshit it was. It was a book called Horses Never Lie by a horseman named Mark Rashid, and I lumped it into all the other so-called natural horsemanship concepts I had no faith in or patience with. I started flipping quickly through the book, glancing at pages in different chapters, and then I flipped more slowly, and then I went back to the beginning and started on page one and pretty much didn’t put it down until I had read the whole thing. Then I read it again.

This book did what good books often do: it changed my life.

It changed my life in ways directly related to the topic of the book. It completely changed my approach to my horses and my horsemanship. This was and is very important to me, and probably even more so to my horses.

It changed my life in ways I would never have imagined, and while I can’t credit the book for all the changes, I can credit it for helping me find the first step. Because of this book I went to a horsemanship clinic. Because of the clinic I heard about a Yahoo group (remember those?). Because of the Yahoo group I got acquainted with a number of women with whom I shared things – an approach towards our horses, a sense of humor, a willingness to keep changing and improving, an interest in sharing the things that mattered to each of us.

The Yahoo group morphed into another Yahoo group, and then another one, as the size and nature of the group shifted, and then Facebook came along. As the years have gone by (17 of them so far), I have met a lot of these women in person, and through them I have met other women either online or in person or both.

Because of these women, I travelled all the way across the country where a woman I had never met in person invited me to spend nearly a week in her house and to ride a horse of hers for four days and if you don’t think that second part is an extraordinary leap of faith I can tell you are not a horse person.

Because of these women, I found my Truth Serum Horse, the horse who firmly but kindly demands every day that my outsides match my insides.

Because of these women, I found a friend to walk with during the year in which both our mothers died from metastatic breast cancer, and again when both our fathers died in the same year seven years later.

Because of these women, I have met people to share music with, and books, and coffee, and tequila, and laughter, and tears. Even when most of our communication is memes and silly photos and voice to text fiascos, there are those times we reach out to each other in our darkest moments to say “I just wanted someone else to know.” We have held each other up through heart tearing grief, we have laughed so hard we have snorted coffee out of our noses from thousands of miles away, we have told each other to put our boots back on and cowgirl up, sometimes all in the same conversation.

Because of these women, I found a friend to share books and grammar jokes and love of words, and this friend introduced me to a writer who had started an online writer’s group.

Because of these women, I rediscovered my writing voice, and I started this blog. The single best thing about sharing my writing, especially the writing I am afraid to share, is the moment that someone else says “Oh, me too.” Which is also the best thing about sharing a journey with these women.

Because of these women, I have work coming out in a book this November: What She Wrote, an anthology of women’s voices, published by Lilith House Press. More to come as we get closer to the release date.

It starts with a book.

Saddle Sore

I made my first foray into selling things on eBay this weekend. We’ve managed to amass quite a saddle collection in the past 30 years. Rose and I met at an eventing barn, and we each had a dressage saddle and a jumping saddle at the time. The original saddles didn’t even work on the original horses, but as we added horses and tack we usually found that a saddle worked on someone, so we only rarely sold one. I got rid of a memorably painful dressage saddle (sitting the trot shouldn’t make a person bleed), and Rose sold a cross country saddle that had such a forward knee roll it hit Cookie more or less at the base of her neck. We added all-purpose saddles, breed-specific saddles, and Western saddles to our tackroom.

We are down to three mostly if not entirely retired horses now, and it seemed like a simple decluttering activity to sell saddles we haven’t ridden in for a decade, or in some cases two. I sat down at the computer to figure out eBay. By the time I had listed the third saddle, I had an offer on the first one. By the time I listed the fourth one, a different buyer bought the first one for the asking price. Before the evening was over, two more saddles had sold.

The Arabian-specific all purpose saddle was the first one to go. I didn’t have any saddle-sized boxes, but it is easy to fit an English saddle in a decent sized packing box, so I took a quick trip to Home Depot, padded and packed the saddle, and took it to the UPS store to drop it off on Friday evening.

Saturday we planned to pack up the two Western saddles and send them off. Easier said than done. The large packing box I thought would work turned out to be a couple inches short, with not enough wiggle room to angle the saddle differently. Home Depot’s extra large box may hold more total volume than their large box, but the dimensions are even worse for trying to fit a saddle. The UPS store’s only boxes that were big enough could fit a small horse, never mind a saddle. A saddle repair web site recommended something called a small wardrobe box, which Home Depot’s web site said they had in stock, but another trip to the store found the shelf empty.

By the time I left the house the second time I was barking at Rose over my shoulder while slamming the door behind me. When I came home from the UPS store, where I had heard the cashier tell someone else that a package left with them on Saturday would not go out till Monday anyway, Rose asked me why I was so irritated. I said “Hang on, let me email the buyers to let them know the saddles will ship Monday” so I could at least check “set expectations” off my list and calm down about being in such a hurry.

When I came back in the room and tried to explain myself, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I felt rushed, or the boxes were the wrong size, or that we had different ideas about how to pack the saddles, or any of the logistics. One buyer had asked me what kind of horse I had used the saddle on, and I gave her a list by breed and description of the horses who wore the saddle. Horses who are all either dead or retired now. There’s a lot to let go of in letting go of these saddles.

I’m not a person who gets attached much to stuff. Putting me in charge of decluttering is very effective but a bit of a worry, because I will throw out even the most sentimental of possessions. My aunt used to say that my father would read a letter while tearing it in half from the top down, so that by the time he was done reading he could throw it straight in the trash. I don’t know when I adopted similar behaviors, but it seems I have. On the other hand, when I’m not actively trying to get rid of things, they pile up, and I can look the other way – until I suddenly notice the pile one day and want to put a match to it.

I had thought, looking at all the saddles, that I was looking at a pile that needed to be cleared away, and I wasn’t wrong. I just forgot that I might remember all the first and last and worst and best rides in those saddles. I forgot that it’s been ten years since my heart horse died and I have never gotten over it, or let another horse into my heart the same way. I forgot the relief of the momma of our two best horses when we finally put a Western saddle on her and stopped squeezing the breath out of her with an English girth. I didn’t forget, exactly, but I haven’t thought for years about the miles and the shows and the trails and the lameness and the ribbons and the lessons and the joy.

I don’t mind saying goodbye to the saddles. It’s the horses I mind saying goodbye to. If you had asked me three days ago, I would have said “Of course I said goodbye to them, years ago.” It’s only now I realize that I never will.

A Very Very Very Fine House

In the thirty years we’ve known each other, Rose and I have never fully stopped house hunting. For the first seven years we were together we rented different places while looking for a home to buy, and also while waiting for both of us to be ready to buy a home at the same time. We finally bought a house twenty years ago and we are still in that house, but somehow we had made the habit early on of looking for what might be next and we never stopped looking.

When we first moved here, the kids were between 5th and 10th grades. Our plan then was to stay here until they all graduated from high school, and then move somewhere else like Colorado. Or Arizona. Or maybe North Carolina. Or Vermont. But probably Colorado. The kids all graduated from high school, and we stayed here. Then the kids graduated from college, and we stayed here. Two of the kids have moved to Colorado, and here we still are, but we are also still looking.

Even while we dreamed of other states, we also kept looking at other houses in Maryland – bigger farms, mostly. There are several free local horse publications we received through all our moves – free horse publications rival alumni associations when it comes to tracking people down, and they all contain ads for horse farms for sale.

I often read the real estate ads in the free horse publications for the same reasons I read the horses-for-sale ads – a little bit to see what’s out there and a lot to be entertained. The horse ads bring us “ex racehorse with old ocelots” and “works well in arena in on trails nightmarish at all”. In the second case I presume voice text is to blame for this accidental truth in advertising (and the utter lack of punctuation). In the first case, possibly spell check (ocelots, osselets – potato, potahto), or possibly the ex racehorse did time at a wildlife refuge and made some elderly friends. Real estate ads say things like “Secluded and majestic. Sleep peacefully to the sounds of a genital creek flowing directly across the road.” Honestly I don’t even know where to start with that one.

When our oldest child was looking for his first house, we read the ads with a little more purpose, but we often got distracted by things that were nowhere near his price range or taste. One evening we were all sitting around the living room browsing real estate ads on our phones when Rose sent us a link and then said “Look at the beautiful old trees this one has!” Our son said “Mom. For three million dollars that place better have Oompa Loompas and shit.”

Before we found the house we live in now, we spent those seven years looking at houses in four different counties around where our kids went to school. Mostly we looked at places with enough land that we could keep our horses at home, which meant that in our price range some of them barely had a standing house. For a while we could keep track of the houses by location, but after a while we developed a different kind of taxonomy.

The Cat Pee house was distinct from the Pee house (which smelled like baby pee on one end, dog pee in the middle, and incontinent elder pee on the other end). The Jesus Bacon house smelled entirely like bacon and had crucifixes and/or biblical cross stitch in every room. The Drywall house was the old farm house where the bedrooms were made by loosely affixing single thickness drywall sheets to create walls that seemed likely to blow over if you opened more than one upstairs window at the same time.

It was in the Drywall house that we saw the ad for this house for the second time. We had seen it once in a web search, dubbed it The Castle (for the stone turret), laughed at the price, and moved on. Our realtor brought the listing to the Drywall house, anticipating correctly that we would not actually be interested in that one. The price had dropped steeply – we later found out the owners were trying to get out from under it after a divorce – and it had everything we were looking for in terms of land, location, and a house that looked like it would keep standing up for the foreseeable future.

When we moved in, there was grass and there was house. Two azalea bushes, two dogwood trees, and a big lilac bush made up all of the landscaping. The first year we started picking out and planting trees. The soil here is quite rocky, and digging a hole big enough to plant even a small tree is both exhausting and satisfying. The kind of manual labor I like best is kind that is the farthest from my job, which I do sitting in front of a computer. I like to do tasks that have a visible start and end, where when you are finished you have something tangible to point to. I like tasks that use my body – hammering fencing nails, stacking hay bales, digging holes for trees. One of the most satisfying tasks I have done here, one day when I was in a very bad mood about a job I had at the time, was to pound three ten-foot lengths of half inch rebar into the rocky dirt with a sledgehammer. (I needed them to hook up the electric fence, but if you have the land, the rebar and the sledgehammer, I highly recommend this as a form of therapy.)

Most of the trees we have planted are now taller than the house. The fields are set up for our horses, their needs, and our convenience. We have a list of additional projects we talk about doing. We sometimes divide that list between “Things we will do if we stay” and “Things we will do if we sell.” We have a five year plan that involves moving to Colorado, and another plan that doesn’t involve moving at all.

There are three horses grazing in our fields right now, and five horses buried here. The first one went in the ground the summer we moved in, and the last one two summers ago. One of the things that pulls us up short about our five year plan is moving three older horses more than halfway across the country to a completely different environment. Another one is leaving the underground horses. I’m quite sure they won’t mind, but we will.

We’ve been looking pretty hard at houses in Colorado for the past couple of years. Last year we even found a farm where the horses could live since it’s unlikely we will buy a place there with enough land for horses. Leaving got pretty real after that, which put me into two panics, one about leaving here, and one about having to empty out the house and the barn of all our stuff, which sent me straight to “Let’s rent a dumpster and throw everything we own in it and have someone haul it away and oh my god we have to find the perfect house in Colorado right now.”

We’ve both been vacillating between wanting to stay and wanting to go for a few years. Last month we finally made one decison: to put the search on hold for now. We have enough uncertainty in our lives right now without keeping ourselves on the will we/won’t we fence, trying to decide which way to jump. We’ll spend the rest of this year enjoying our trees, and communing with all eight of our horses. Maybe then we will know what comes next.

But I bet we will keep reading the real estate ads.

Writing, or Not

Current Mood

Almost three months ago I decided I was going to post a blog every Monday. I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks that I had a schedule, and since then I have told just a few friends, and my writing group. The down side of announcing a schedule for writing is that I then have to actually write according to the schedule and sometimes I don’t feel like (it’s ok if you read those last few words in a super whiny tone – you wouldn’t be wrong).

I mean to write, but I end up reading. It’s a lot like the detours I take looking up a word in the dictionary.  On the way to my word, I see another that is stranger or more interesting or otherwise more attractive or eye-catching.  On days when I have more restraint I mark that page with a finger and come back to it after visiting the spelling or definition or synonym of the word I was after.  Sometimes I wind up with my entire hand in the dictionary, each finger marking a different page.  I may then return to the word or words that caught my eye, or perhaps something else will have jumped off the page of the original word – another word, or in the case of my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, a usage note.  Any of these may – likely will – lead to other words until whatever drove me to pick up the dictionary in the first place has been completely lost.  This process is rarely derailed by the presence of another person, usually the person who asked me for the definition of the first word that I did not know precisely.  If I can I will pull them along with me through the dictionary maze, but I am not easily deterred.  Even when they throw their hands up and leave the room I will happily continue my wordly wanderings.

In high school my favorite parties involved the game Fictionary.  I believe this has grown to some kind of board game now, but to us it involved paper, pens, and a dictionary.  One person would look up a word that none of the others knew – no easy task in this group – and the others would each write down a definition they thought likely or that at least sounded plausible.  The holder of the dictionary would then read all the definitions out loud (including the actual one which was also written on a sheet of paper to disguise it) and the other players would cast their votes as to which was the real definition.  Points were given for guessing correctly, but more points went to those who wrote the incorrect definitions that were selected as real, and still more points to the word-chooser when no one guessed correctly. My shining Fictionary moment was when I made up a definition that was chosen by every other player. I don’t remember the word, or the definition, but i remember the feeling.

Given my love of Fictionary you’d think I’d have a better poker face than I do, but I don’t have one at all. I am best at keeping a straight face while saying something patently absurd, a skill I likely learned from my father who reportedly once convincingly informed a colleague at the newspaper that she should clean her typewriter with peanut butter. It helps if the fakery does not involve words, as in the time my son asked during dinner where the cat was, and I just looked at him with wide eyes for a minute, and then looked at the platter of flank steak in the middle of the table, and then I looked back at my son. He didn’t exactly believe me, but I freaked him out a little, and I was pleased. I am not all that good at misdirection when anything personal is on the line. Ask me why I’m treating my writing deadline like a term paper deadline – the kind where you stay up all night the night before because you did nothing all semester – and I will probably turn red and stammer.

Like my dictionary detours, when I start to write I often have a quote from some other writer in my head.  I go get the book to look it up for review or to quote it accurately.  On my way to the quote I may fall into a page more compelling and from there to another.  I may go right to my quote and instead of writing it down I just keep reading.  Depending on the book, the author may quote another whose book I must go get, or this may lead me to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is the like dictionary all over again. Months may go by if any of this leads to an internet search, which will usually lead to the purchase and subsequent reading of more books.  Meanwhile I have yet to put pen to paper but I still consider this part of my writing process.

With all that in mind, it’s probably not such a bad idea to have a day by which I need to get something on paper (so to speak). Like too many other things in life, it’s easier for me to commit to a thing when I’ve committed to someone else than when I’ve committed to myself, which seems backwards but I know I’m not alone in this. I’m pretty sure the three people I’ve told I’m writing weekly will not come after me with pitchforks for my weekly dose of whatever this is, but damn it, I’m going to come up with something. This week, this is it. Put your pitchforks down, friends.

It’s Not the Fall

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When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.

There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”

Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.

My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.

The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.

For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.

When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.

I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.

When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.

By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.

Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.

Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.

She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”

After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.

“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.

“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”

“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”

“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”

I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.

After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.

“How is the tingling?”

“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.

This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.