Perspective

Looking through my recent photographs, I see that I’ve been trying to see from different perspectives this summer. Lots of looking up through things, looking at the back of things, extreme close ups. Views from the perspective of what the thing I’m photographing is looking at, or would be looking at if it had eyes. I’m tired of my own point of view. I’m tired, period. Tired of all the things. My approach to work looks like my high school approach to term papers: wait until the last possible minute for no good reason and then cram in everything I need to do that felt overwhelming but turns out not to be hard at all, except for the adrenaline rush of the almost-missed deadline. I am getting chores done – all humans and animals are fed and reasonably cleaned up after, bills are paid. I listen to podcasts sometimes, but that’s basically a chore, and I spend much of my podcast-listening time composing rebuttals to whatever the person I’m supposed to be inspired by said that annoyed me.

What I’m not getting done is non-chores. What do we call that – fun? Creativity? Relaxation? I’m not listening to music. I’m not writing. I don’t even want to read. I mean, not really, because that’s crazy talk, but I’ve been rereading rather than reading new books. Which is fine, and something I always do somewhat, but for at least the last six months if not a year, I have read hardly any new books, which is unusual. Unusual isn’t a strong enough word. I did read a new book this week (thank you, Laura Lippman, for always being able to keep my attention), and in it the writer who is the main character is talking to his editor, who says that if he ever sees certain words in the writer’s manuscript he will know it’s a secret message to alert him that the writer is in trouble. In his case it was words like limn, or saying good things about Wuthering Heights. In my case, “I don’t want to read” is pretty close to that kind of cry for help.

Not that I am being held hostage, other than the way we all still feel one degree or another of stuck at home these days, and the fact that I can’t seem to make myself stop looking at social media even while declaring how much I hate it (and I do, increasingly, hate it). There are things I haven’t done for a year and a half that I don’t miss at all (any form of public transit), and there are things I have very mixed feelings about not doing (work travel), and things I have been grateful for (not having to respond to invitations to – well, anything).

Now that I think of it, this one book that held my attention is, in many ways, about perspective. As I was reading it, I thought “This doesn’t sound like Laura Lippman.” Then I noticed she was writing in third person, but a very close third that had made me think for a while it was first person, so basically she’s writing in third person but more or less from inside her main character’s point of view. But then I realized that maybe it’s another character’s view of the main character’s point of view. And then someone else came into the picture. It sounds needlessly complicated, but it reminds me of how things are right now (or maybe always). Most things that are being presented as objective are anything but. Perspectives are skewed but no one wants to look at any other perspective, or at their own bias. My way of dealing with that seems to be to decrease my intake even more, and now I’m basically hibernating. Or estivating, as I once heard it called when it’s a summer time rest, and even if that’s not a real thing I still like the word, and the idea that there may be a name for it in every season.

What I miss most isn’t even a thing, it’s a feeling: joy. Being around my dogs brings me something like joy, but it’s closer to peace. Same with the horses. I don’t know what people do who don’t have animals in their lives. Animal perspective is the best perspective, if I’m looking for other views: views of time (always now), of what matters (staying alive, dinner, belly rubs, ear scritches), of staying home (the pack is together!).

Last week Rose and I decided to make a getaway. We went to the beach for the first time in we actually can’t remember when. Four years? Six? We were only away for a few days, and mostly we sat and relaxed. On the second day, we took advantage of staying with an Airbnb host who does boat tours, and we went out with him for a sunset boat ride. If I can’t remember the last year I went to the beach, I can’t even recall the last decade in which I was on a boat. We were staying on a creek that connects to the Chesapeake Bay, and in order to get where he wanted to take us – to a disappearing island that is used by many kinds of birds as a nighttime resting spot, and in time for sunset – our host had to put the hammer down. I can’t promise Marie Kondo that anything in my closet will ever spark joy, but speeding along the water in a place where we could not see the shore in any direction, with the wind and water spray all around us – well, that not only sparked joy, it lit the whole damn fire.

Our last day we went back to the ocean. In addition to seeing an endless stream of my beloved pelicans, we also saw a big pod of dolphins, complete with little dolphin babies doing leaps and flips. But mostly we alternated swimming and sitting, as one does at the beach. I love how the beach – any beach – is so full of memories. General memories, specific memories, pleasant and not so pleasant memories – somehow all of them are good memories now. The smell of olive oil, which my father used as tanning lotion. Playing in the sand and the water with my sisters. Diving off my father’s hands into a wave. The disorientation of misjudging a wave and getting tumbled upside down and raked by sand. Singing and practicing cartwheels and handstands, both in and out of the water. Holding hands with my daughter to run and dive into the cold waves. Relaxing on the quietest beach I have ever been to with Rose, while we caught up on lost sleep after the first six months of our first adorable but exhausting puppy.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I’ve never been to, it brings up memories of every beach I HAVE ever been to, every friend and family member I have spent beach time with, every boardwalk and arcade and cold wave and sand castle and morning donut and afternoon pizza slice, every sand dollar and conch shell and dolphin leap and pelican dive.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I have been to a million times, it’s a brand new beach every trip, every day. No matter what kind of dredging and jetty building and sea grass planting and sand importing we humans try to do, the sea and the weather will have their way with the coastline, which changes every day – sometimes large, and sometimes small, but always changes.

The thing about the beach is the thing about life. It’s always familiar and full of memories, at the same time it’s always new and changing and completely out of my control. The joy, though – the joy is always there, when I am ready to reach for it again.

Time Lapse

A couple of days ago I set up my wildlife camera next to the bird feeders to record who all showed up over the course of a day. I’ve only been paying attention to birds in any kind of focused way for the past two years, and I would not call myself an avid birder. My interest in them started when I decided I wanted to take a bird photograph every day for a 100 days of fill-in-the-creative-endeavor project, and while I still enjoy trying to get decent photos of them, I’m not that committed to that either. I follow a local online birding group and I see a lot of amazing photos there, and a lot of people excitedly adding to their life lists (the poor painted bunting who showed up in the DC suburbs seemed to have more photographers than all the current and former British royal family combined). I admire the enthusiasm but I don’t fully understand it. I do get pretty excited when I see a bird I’ve never seen and can actually identify, but maybe next year I’ll forget and get just as excited again.

I had the bird feeder camera set up for about ten hours to try to catch multiple feeding cycles. Most of the 1,354 photos are just that – repeat cycles of the same visitors, including a cardinal couple, a red bellied woodpecker couple, a blue jay, a mockingbird (it could be more than one – they come one at a time and I can’t tell them apart), a bluebird or two, a few brown headed cowbirds, a vast parade of house finches (with an occasional purple finch to remind me I am terrible at finch identification), goldfinches, little chipping sparrows, and one very fat and sassy squirrel. The photos I like best are the ones that make me laugh: the squirrel moving from one feeder to another, several bird blurs coming and going at once, a goldfinch in the middle of a 180 as he realized he didn’t want to mess with the mockingbird and he could come back later.

It turns out to be watching the regular birds doing regular bird things that interests me most. An eastern kingbird in his little tuxedo perched on the fence looking so refined, and then full-on assaulting a robin, appearing to say “I said GOOD DAY, sir!” to the back end of the departing robin. The way the female cardinal always shows up first, whether at the feeder or a tree, and then is joined by her mate – in contrast to the red bellied woodpeckers, who take entirely separate turns at the feeders, and always the male first. Many of the birds I’m seeing now I saw all winter. I’ve been watching the male goldfinches shift from a dull sort of olive color in winter to their bright yellow breeding plumage. The chickadees who buzz impatiently at me from the nearby sugar maple while I fill the feeders may well be the same ones who have been buzzing at me all winter, though their red breasted nuthatch and pine warbler associates who were bold enough to perch right on the stands while I added seed seem to have moved on.

The green herons have made their first spring appearance. They are following their usual pattern: first I see one flying north from the reservoir next door, perhaps to one of the other nearby ponds. Then I start seeing them flying over our property to or from the water – that’s the phase we are in now. Soon those flights will include carrying sticks to build their highly hypothetical looking nests, which I believe are constructed of eleven twigs and some wishful thinking, but they always do the trick. Last year when they built a nest in the weeping cherry right outside our bedroom window and I found one of the eggs after it hatched, I was amazed how small it was, and that it didn’t just slip right through the twigs. Green heron baby watch may be my favorite season, and it’s coming soon.

The barn swallows returned in April, as they always do. The consistency of birds is another thing I love, and barn swallows seem to be among the most punctual. We have had barn swallow mud nests in all of our run-in sheds for years, but I haven’t seen any evidence they are inhabited. I don’t know if swallows reuse nests; they may just be out and about doing their swallow activities all day. Far and away my favorite thing about mowing is having the swallows fly low and fast around me, eating the bugs that are scared up by the tractor. It’s a little wet to mow right now, but I had to mow the dog yard so as to not lose the actual dogs in the tall grass, and I had swallow companions the whole time. They were one of the first birds I paid attention to, in my early twenties when I didn’t have attention for much but the fact that I seemed to be losing my mind. Luckily I was working on a 95 acre farm at the time and there was a lot of mowing to do. I sat on the tractor for hours, sifting through depression and trauma and confusion and grief, all of which lightened with the swoop and swish of the barn swallows. For me, barn swallows are the dolphins of the air. They always make me smile, with their tiny rust colored breasts and bright eyes and sparkling wings filling my heart and reminding me to look up.

In the two years since I started my current bird journey I have also had bouts of depression and trauma and confusion and grief and feeling like I’m losing my mind. Most of it has been less extreme than in my early twenties – life in general was just more extreme when I was in my early twenties. But some things have gotten bigger, or harder, and the grief keeps adding up.

As with my early barn swallows, all the birds I watch now help me through that grief, and all the other worries large and small. We have raptors here as well as song birds, so I get frequent reminders from the birds (or the remains of the birds) that nature can be brutal, but I also get the beauty. I get the ebb and flow of bird migrations, the transient joy of the exotic visitors passing through, the birds who stay, the birds who return again and again, the birds who build their improbable nests and raise their babies against slim odds to start the cycle all over again.

Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

Pasture Walk

I have, once again, been in a mood for the past two weeks. I thought about taking up the negativity challenge my cousin sent me a few years back when there were too many gratitude and positivity chain posts sweeping Facebook. The gist of the negativity challenge is that you name ten things that get on your nerves, the pettier the better. It is quite fun and even a little cathartic, but the problem right now is that the things that are getting on my nerves aren’t petty. The other problem is that when so many people are getting on my nerves with big things, it’s probably a pretty good sign that I have some work to do in those areas myself, and I don’t feeeeeeeeel like it. So there.

I had two different writing exercises assigned in this same two week time frame. One was a praise poem, and I got one of the projected five stanzas done because the only thing I felt like praising was coffee. I tried to move from coffee to other things in the kitchen that I wanted to praise, but I stalled out at:

“I give thanks for the dogs that lie under my feet
Tripping me as I gather ingredients.”

Looking back, even the coffee stanza is a little disgruntled.

The other exercise worked a little better, since it did not require me to be actively grateful, but just to think about something I do regularly that I take pleasure in. Here it is, in hopes that anyone else who has been having the same kind of April I’ve been having may feel better for a little walk through the pasture:

This is a walk I do every day, but not a walk from any particular day. It’s a walk that I do in all seasons, but for today I will walk in the fall, with its background music of geese muttering on the pond next door, the leaves on the trees changed or fallen, the still-green grass eaten down to a haze interspersed with patches of bare dirt.

I’m walking through a field, on my way from one pair of horses to the other, a fence on my left, a small hill on my right, a bucket of grain in one hand. The field, like all the fields around it, is a minefield of primarily horse manure, but also that of fox, goose, skunk, and any other creature who takes this path when I’m not on it. A lot of my looking is down.

My downcast eyes start to steer me around a pile of horse manure, but then I stop, and stoop. This pile is covered with something that from above it looks like a convention of tiny parasols. Each one is open and translucently striped, and I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to take pictures, which is the main reason I have a cell phone. I stare at it in paralyzed horror on the rare occasions it rings, but it is silent now as I crouch down to photograph the last signs of the fairy party.

The sun is up but not high enough to clear the trees in front of me, so the rays pierce the scantily clad limbs only to get caught and fractured by the chilly morning fog. The parallel lines of the fence boards are periodically connected by spider webs, which with all due respect to Charlotte have much more beauty in their rainbow sparkling dew concentricity than any words. I stop again, angling so that the web is clearly visible against the backdrop of the ground, and the light reflects off the dew droplets but does not shine directly into the lens. I’m interrupted by an indignant whuffing and the sound of fifteen hundred equine pounds landing from an impatient but balletic leap. I pause by the big bay body after I tip his breakfast into his bowl, trying to catch his whorls of hair in the dawn light but he steps his hind feet away, muzzle still firmly planted in his food. I settle for the silhouette of his withers, back, and croup against the fog: sunrise over Mount Finn.

On these morning walks, I feel compelled to try to record these sights as I see them. If I succeed, they will look not like what they are, but like what they feel like to me, a city child transplanted into these country fields more than half my life ago, starting my days on my knees in the wet grass amid nameless scat, trying to capture the view from behind my eyes.

Postcards from Terra Firma

The ash tree is known in some mythological traditions as the world tree, the tree of life, the tree that spans between worlds. I chose our lone ash tree over fifteen years ago without knowing anything about the tree from either an arboricultural or mythological perspective. I liked it for its straight trunk and symmetrical branches. In our first two waves of planting trees here, we chose trees for practical reasons. We chose them for their crown shapes: some spreading, some rounded, some upright. We chose them for their growth rates: near the barn and the horse pastures we wanted fast growers to produce shade, so we planted London planes and tulip poplars. Near the house we wanted less shade, so we chose ironwood, crimson king maple, ornamental plum. Some we just find pretty, like the weeping cherry and the redbuds. We planted the ash for my mother two days after she died, and it has grown untouched by ash borers for over fifteen years, spanning the world where I am, the world where she is, the world where I remember us, and the world where I picture us together.

Birds are a constant presence, their specific populations shifting with the seasons and the birds’ own whims. Birds that are just passing through, birds that come for the summer, birds that stay for the winter. When we first moved here, there were few I recognized: robins, bluebirds, starlings, grackles. Every small brown bird was a sparrow, every red bird a cardinal, every raptor a red tailed hawk. The year my sister died, I took up bird photography. I went through bird crushes, stalking and trying to capture closer and clearer shots of the Coopers hawk pair, the female cardinal, the nest of Dr. Seussian green heron babies. I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dying, and then I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dead. I can differentiate a goldfinch from a pine warbler from a yellow-breasted chat, even if I can’t quite yet parse grief from anger from loss.

Ice storms are a part of winter every year, though between winters I manage to forget about them and am surprised anew each time. They embody the exact intersection of destruction and beauty, dropping tree limbs on fences, downing whole trees across our driveway, cutting off power and rendering driving impossible even if we could find a way out. As I make my careful way around to inspect the damage, I carry a camera to try to capture the magic of the sun sparking rainbows through the ice encasing every twig of the ironwood tree, the icicle stalactites growing downward from the barn eaves, the jewel-bright dogwood berries glowing red through ice teardrops. We mourn the fallen Bradford pear even as we plan what to plant in its place: a tree both sturdier and more flexible to weather the inevitable storms.

Blinking one by one into the dusk, shining brightly in the black of late night, hiding behind cloud cover, stars both visible and invisible fill my nights. Shooting stars, not stars at all, grace my late and early outings with the dogs just often enough to keep me, like the dogs, looking up for the intermittent reward. I have traveled to places where I can see the Milky Way, where the stars are so numerously visible they form a web of light, but here at home they remain individual points even on the clearest night. I can pick out a few constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, the Pleiades. I am less certain of Taurus, but in true Taurus fashion I will confidently point out where it is. I have lived in this spot for more than a third of my life, lucky enough to have my views both day and night unchanged in twenty years. When my father was dying I returned to the city where I grew up, spending nights in his spare room lit by the orange glow of the streetlamps, unable to comprehend how to sleep with no true darkness to delineate night from day, with no stars to remind me: Look up! Look up.

The trees on the front and back edges of our property are trees that were here before us. A stand of tall white pines whose needles have made their own ecosystem at the entrance to the property, a ridgeline of locusts that shed their limbs more readily than their leaves, mulberries on the edge of the back woods, their berries drawing birds and squirrels to their branches and white tailed deer and foxes to the fallen fruit below. The rest of the trees, the trees closer to the house and barn, we planted ourselves, sweating and swearing our way through digging holes in our rocky soil. There is the weeping cherry I can no longer wrap my arms all the way around, shading the living room window. The plane trees that tower over the barn. The oak and maple trees that mark the graves of the four horses who moved here with us – each of those trees a seedling the year we buried each horse, the smallest tree now fifteen feet tall. I am particularly drawn to the trees in winter, their skeletons visible to the world. Bare branches cast shadows on the snow like visible roots that ground us here, or split around the solid line of the trunk shadow like the branching of veins and arteries around an aorta, carrying blood to and from the heart and lungs of this place.

Wineberry plants grow thick along the edge of the back woods, and they spring up anywhere else we let them. Canes bend to the ground to bury and root their tips in their ongoing crawl towards the sunny pastures. A welcome invasive, they feed us when we remember it’s the right time of year to pick them, and otherwise they feed the wild creatures. Wineberries look like raspberries lit from within, their drupelets smaller, brighter and more translucent than even a raspberry from the farmers’ market stands. When my mother stayed with us after her second to last hospital visit, her appetite dulled by cancer and drugs and depression, I tried to create small plates of things she loved to tempt her to eat. A quarter of a bagel, smoothly cream cheesed and covered with a thin layer of lox plated with a small fruit salad: bright red wineberries with blueberries, a few slices of banana, two-toned green kiwi. A small dish of yogurt bejeweled with wineberries. “Too pretty,” my mother declared, “not to eat.”

Roll Call

I doubt I could name five people in any of my classes from kindergarten through fourth grade, but I can tell you with certainty that once when I was about ten and we were visiting my grandmother, I went on a trail ride on a gelding named Gilbert while my sister rode a mare named Lucille. In fact, I have seen photos of even my fifth grade class and thought “Who ARE these people?” but I can look at ancient instamatic photos from the barn where I learned to ride and immediately identify the horses, whether I ever rode them or not: Parfait, Cherokee, Teddy, Ajax, Bits and Pieces, Hombre. I can fall asleep by listing the names of ponies from that first barn: Ace, Pickle, Tia Maria, Janice, Little Fat Pony, or horses from the next barn we moved to: Sea Dew, Splash, Confetti, Orion, Four on the Floor, and the chestnut Me Not trio (Catch Me Not, Kiss Me Not, Touch Me Not), or horses from camp: a big dapple gray gelding named Strictly, a sweet flea bitten gray mare named Nasha, and one of the most strikingly unattractive bay geldings I have ever seen whose name was Handsome. When I applied for my first job after college, as soon as I heard the woman’s voice on the phone I knew that she had been a boarder at the farm where I had worked before college. I had no recollection of her name but I knew her horse’s name was Happy, that his favorite snack was bananas, and which blankets he wore at what temperatures.

Horses from my past are sharing a lot of space in my heart right now, and none more than our own horses who moved to this property with us and who are buried here. It’s technically still winter but the early bulbs are pushing up their greenery and in some cases their flowers have started blooming, and there are crocuses, snowdrops, Carolina bluebells, or daffodils marking each horse’s grave. They each have a tree, too. We’ve planted a lot of trees here, but the horses’ trees all volunteered and grew from seedlings, marking the time as well as the horse.

When you drive up our driveway, you pass Wy’s grave. We buried him the year we moved here, not long after we finished the fence and barn and were able to bring the horses home. Wy was the third horse I bought and the last horse I sold, though he made his way back to me in the end. I was told by a dressage clinician who knew me hardly at all that I should not buy him because he would never make my dreams come true. There were a lot of reasons to argue that I had no business buying him, not the least of which was that I had neither the cash nor the income to do so, but the nature of my dreams and how this big bay horse fit into them was not even on the list. It’s been over twenty years since I got him back and I only just realized that the way that happened was in part because I had a dream that Wy told me to come get him, and when I woke up, I did just that.

Some people have stories about their lost love. Maybe it’s someone they let get away and only realized later they shouldn’t have. Maybe it’s someone they lost too soon. Mine is Trappe. I never intended to buy her – I was just planning a training lease where I would ride and train the horse until I sold her, and her owner and I would split the proceeds. It was not love at first sight, but it didn’t take too long to dawn on me that I’d been looking for this horse my whole life and I’d be a fool to let her go. There are no missed opportunities in our story. I didn’t let her get away. Technically speaking she didn’t die too soon – 24 isn’t young for a thoroughbred, and she survived an astonishing number of potentially fatal things (including colic, botulism, and lightning) in her lifetime. I just miss her. I’ve never had a horse partnership as deep as the one I had with her again, and I know that’s partly because I’ve never let myself get quite so close. A little more than half way through my time with Trappe I completely changed my approach to horses and I spent some time wanting to apologize to all of the horses, and especially her. A wise horseman friend said “You’ve got to let that go – your horses let it go a long time ago,” and while I know that’s true, I always kind of wanted a do-over with Trappe. For her sake, is what I thought, and while that is true, it’s also true that I’d like to have those (or any) nineteen years with her all over again.

Punkin was Rose’s baby, but she was mine in some ways, too. She was not the first young horse I started, but she was the first young horse I started and then got to keep working with long term. She was a master of energy conservation: always willing to do what we asked, always figuring out how to do it with the absolute minimum effort. At a log across the trail she would balance on her hind end while she chose her route – we could never accuse her of refusing – and then when she saw her spot she would hop gently to the other side and carry on up the trail. She was alternately grumpy and sweet with the other horses, but with humans she was sweetness itself. Punkin was the first horse we buried inside one of the pastures, and we never say “Punkin’s grave,” we just say things like “Niño and Tabby are napping by Punkin.” We do that with all the horses, come to think of it, but I particularly like to think of Punkin still out watching over her brother and her cousin.

Cookie was the very definition of motherhood. She made beautiful babies, passing on all of her best traits, and though she spent her first four years in a field with no human contact, she taught those babies to trust humans. She also taught our human babies to trust horses, and when she thought they needed it, she taught them lessons. I spent one fall “teaching” her how to canter (pro tip: horses know how to canter already), and I marvel at her patience as we (ok, I) learned just how small a cue was needed to get a nice lopey canter, instead of the leap-into-zoom I had been instigating. I’m not a fan of mass backyard breeding of horses, but if ever there was a horse I wish I had a whole herd from, it’s Cookie. She has a fountain of pink roses covering her grave. I’ve read that pink roses symbolize gratitude, grace, and joy, and that seems just about perfect. She was Rose’s heart horse the way Trappe was mine, and we each buried a big chunk of our hearts with those mares.

Trappe, Cookie, Punkin and Wy were our foundation horses, not in the breeding sense that horse people usually mean by that term – Cookie was the only one we ever bred – but these four horses were the foundation of us. Trappe and Cookie were how Rose and I met. Wy and Punkin were the horses we were learning our way with as we learned our way with each other in the first year of our relationship. We didn’t all stay together straight through, but we came back together when it mattered, and we grew and grew older together. From the horses we learned how to listen, how to learn, and maybe most important and most difficult, how to let go. I miss them and I feel their presence in equal measure, but not always at the same time. Today, this week, this month, I just miss them.

Praise the Dog

Praise the dog, the open heart
The welcome glee, the body wag
Praise soft fur, the sweeping tail
The puppy breath, the velvet ear
Praise the interrupting paw
The focused stare, the sit upon
Praise belly rub, the whisker kiss
The murmured sigh, the snuggle in
Praise joyful play, unfettered run
The dreaming sleep, the stolen snack
Praise hunter’s deafness, herder’s speed
The warning growl, commanding bark
Praise the sharing of the couch
The yours is mine, the mine is mine –

Praise hunger. Praise demands.
Praise the journey that we share.
Praise the knowing where we are.
Praise the time that’s always now.
Praise the loving, praise the loved.
Praise the carefree, praise the wild.

Praise the dog who brings me home.
Praise the dog who brings me home.

Harbingers

The tundra swans are here! This is our sixth year seeing them, and while I don’t know what caused them to add us to their migration path 15 years into our time here, I am always grateful. Uncharacteristically, they showed up during a period of bad weather this year. I have long suspected they know just how good they look against a bright blue sky, and in fact they seem put out by the gloomy, wet weather we’ve been having. Normally during their time here, they go to other bodies of water during the day and return to our reservoir at night, but they have mostly spent the rainy weekend grumbling along the edge of the ice on the reservoir and not flying at all.

We have enormous numbers of Canada geese who inhabit the reservoir year-round, and they are not fans of the swans, who are the only birds I know that make the geese look small. The first year or two the swans came here, the geese would circle and circle over the reservoir, sometimes returning to one of their daytime ponds for the night, and sometimes landing as far from the swans as possible. They spent the nights they were here grumbling about the tourists, while the swans made their own odd calls that I can best describe as what it would have sounded like if Mr. Rochester had also had mad geese locked in his attic. This year, as almost always, it was their voices that tipped me off to their arrival. They came after dark on Friday night, and when I took the dogs out for last pee, they all stopped in their tracks and looked at me like “What the hell, mom?” which seems a reasonable response to unexpected swans. The geese seem resigned now, but it will likely be a few more days before we see them actively mingling with the swans. It’s warming up and the ice is melting, which means more water space for everyone to keep to their own species.

The swans come by during the first half of March each year, but what they find when they arrive varies quite a bit. If the winter has been mild, or if it has warmed up already, the whole reservoir will be water. If it’s been a cold winter or if the cold is lingering later, most of it may be ice. They seem unfazed either way, sometimes gathering on the ice and sometimes paddling serenely through the water, no matter the temperature. The ground at this time of year is almost always terrible. This year we have had more snow than we have had for a few years, and it’s lingering in both slushy and icy swaths. The horse pastures are a muddy, manure-filled mess, and (as is true every year) look like they will never recover. Mud is the unifying theme – sucking off our boots, changing the colors of the horses, coming in the house on the dogs, making everything we can see a drab brown – not that different than the colors of the Canada goose, come to think of it. It matches my mood almost exactly.

My excitement about the swans is a mixture of the beauty of their bright white plumage in the sea of mud, the novelty of these very short-term visitors, and the indication that spring really is coming. The swans usually arrive before the first crocus blooms. The snowdrops are just getting started, so the crocuses and the Carolina bluebells won’t be far behind. I confess I don’t think very much about the first sign of the change of any season except winter into spring. Spring into summer just seems to happen. Summer into fall is heralded by the first change of leaf color – usually the deceptive beauty of a bright red poison ivy vine climbing a tree I should avoid – followed quickly by sadness and a sense of time passing too fast. Fall into winter is only rarely a snowy event around here, but snow is what I think of when I think of winter. This year the snow didn’t come until February, but it feels like it’s been snowing for all 17 weeks that February feels like it has lasted. It took very little time to go from “I can’t wait for it to snow!” to “Is it EVER going to stop snowing?” I had not realized quite how much of the magic of a good snowstorm is the shutting down of all regular activities. When so many regular activities are already shut down, it’s hard to notice much of a difference. Plus there’s no such thing as a snow day from work when everyone is already working from home.

My normal eagerness for signs of spring has an added frantic edge to it this year. I long for warmer weather, for green pastures instead of brown, for fresh vegetables from the garden, for sun on my skin. I also long for travel, for seeing and hugging my kids, for new experiences, for live music. I hate crowds, but right now I would dearly love the shared experience of singing along with a stadium full of people to songs we all know and love. I feel like this winter has lasted a full year, and like it’s never going to end. I’m not a believer that “back to normal” is a thing, partly because I’m not really a believer in “normal,” but also because I sincerely hope we have all learned some things about what we can keep doing and what we really have to change. In the midst of this ongoing and season-spanning year of the unknown, I’m grateful to the swans for reminding me that the seasons really do keep changing and that some things – good things, beautiful things – remain the same.

Let Go or Be Dragged

I have a long history of doing stupid things with horses. Usually I did the stupid things when I was alone, often while trying to get something done faster and more easily. I almost never got hurt back then, but I came back to the barn with a lot of interesting stories. There was the time didn’t shut the main gate before bringing the herd in for breakfast (spoiler alert: no horse story that begins with “I didn’t take the time to shut the gate” is going to end with all the horses going smoothly into their stalls) and ended up jogging down the middle of the road behind a trotting horse, as cars passed us in both directions, drivers apparently thinking this was an expected way for a person and a horse to get exercise at the same time. There was the time I hopped on one horse bareback to ride him in from the field while ponying another horse behind. Not a bad idea until the horse I was ponying slammed on the brakes, and I decided in that split second that if I had to hold onto either the inexpensive Apaloosa-Thoroughbred cross or the expensive Hanoverian it should be the Hanoverian. Perhaps not the wrong cost-benefit decision, but not such a good idea to let go of the horse I was riding and hang onto the horse I was leading but who wasn’t actually moving. Fastest unscheduled dismount I’ve ever done off the back end of a horse.

Sometimes it was a well intended but ill judged riding decision, as in the time I decided to get on a horse for the first time in an open field some distance from the barn. I was re-starting him after some very bad experiences and my theory was that he would be more comfortable away from the arena where the bad experiences had occurred. He stood like a rock as I put my foot in the stirrup, hopped a bit, and pulled myself up, and then he went from rock to rocket and bolted for the barn. I had the choice to throw myself off or throw myself the rest of the way on, and I chose on, trying to stay in the middle of his back while planning what I would say to my boss when we came screaming into the barn at 700 miles per hour. He wore himself down to a walk before I had to finish crafting my speech. There was the time I decided that it would be better for me to dismount and lead the green horse over the narrow, muddy creek instead of asking him to go across it with me on his back. I took the end of the reins, hopped across the creek, and turned back to encourage him only to find he was in mid-air on his way to landing in the exact spot I occupied. I turned away and he hit me square in the back with his chest, sending me from upright to face plant in a split second. Because I (of course) held on to the reins, I also caused him to step on me and push me further down into the mud. I ended up with mud covering every inch of the front of my body (face included), and some hoof-shaped bruises on my ass – perfect imprints including the shape of his frog, his shoe, even the nailheads.

My riding career got off to a fairly sedate start with a couple of black and white paint school ponies during two weeks of summer riding camp. Ace (Ace of Spades, for the black spade marking centered around his tail) had been packing new riders for so long I’m not fully convinced he ever knew little eight year old me was up there on his back, but he certainly never did anything to disturb me (or to expend any extra energy). Cherokee was smaller, prettier, and more sensitive, though I confess at the end-of-camp show she simply left the ring with me on her back and headed for her stall.

It wasn’t until a little later, but not much later, that I started getting placed on horses no one knew anything about and sent out for a trail ride or a lesson. This did not always go well, as in the time the horse in question was a mare with a foal by her side. The instructor shut the foal in the stall, put me up on the mare, and we headed out towards the trails. I say “towards” because we didn’t even make it all the way to the end of the barn before she turned around and ran back to her foal. It was a short ride. Slightly longer and more eventful was the time we were walking on a trail on a ridge above the creek , when the instructor started to trot and everyone behind him trotted also, until it came to the horse I was on. Instead of trotting, he stood up on his hind legs and started backing down the hill towards the creek. I threw my arms around his neck to try to stay on and keep him from flipping over while my sister, the only rider behind me, screamed for the instructor to stop. Like most of my stories from this period, this one ended uneventfully with the ride resuming after the instructor decided to walk the rest of the way.

Once I had a choice about what horses I would ride, I often chose the same kinds of horses I rode when I first started. Horses who were new at the barn and no one knew what to expect of them. Horses who people did know what to expect of, and it wasn’t anything good. Horses who people had decided weren’t worth the effort. I have always loved horses, but when I first started taking lessons I was afraid of riding them. I remained afraid until the first time I fell off and nothing bad happened. That fall happened because I was so tense I just bounced off the side of the horse when he started to trot. Afterwards I was able to at least loosen up enough to stay on. The next year when we moved to a different barn I had the added motivation of the requirement that any student who fell off in a lesson had to bring brownies to the next lesson. The shame of being seen carrying the brownies was sufficient to keep me on top during almost any situation. I learned to ride, but I also learned to hang on.

I am not sure if my lifelong habit of choosing horses who are challenging to ride had to do with proving that I was not scared, or with the positive “this kid can ride anything” feedback I got from being put on horses I had no business riding, or with having empathy for horses other people had given up on, or a combination of all these things. There was a period in my life where my horse choices and my people choices were remarkably similar. Then there was a point when I made a decision that if I needed to work out some kind of savior energy in my life I should do that with horses and not with people. Eventually I realized I don’t need to do it with horses either, but that was a bumpier road. That one brought up the “Who am I, if I’m not the person who…” line of thinking. If I’m not the person who can – and does – ride anything. If I’m not the person who is the horse’s last hope. If I’m not the person who can get the horse to do the thing he won’t do for anyone else. If I’m not the person who isn’t scared – but that’s the one that gets tricky, because I was in fact scared all along. I was just an expert at both hiding and ignoring it.

I don’t particularly want to admit to being scared of anything, but admitting I’m scared on a horse or around a horse is about the hardest thing for me. It comes the closest to erasing my entire identity. Even though it has been decades since I earned my living riding the last hope horses, the idea that I can do it is still central to my sense of myself. I still have the last horse I got because of my horse savior complex, and I will say now that I have been scared of him for most of the time I have had him. He didn’t need me to save him, turns out, but for a period of time I needed him because he doesn’t let me get away with anything, especially not with pretending not to be afraid. I try not to make that his responsibility any more. These days when I go out to his field and he’s jumping at shadows I just say, “Me too, buddy. People can’t always see what’s scaring us.”

I don’t miss my bad ideas and my crazy stories. I don’t miss making decisions that were dangerous for me and for the horses. I don’t miss what eventually led to broken bones when I stopped being young enough to bounce. I do miss being young enough to bounce, though, and sometimes I miss that kid who would get on any horse because at the heart of her she believed the horses wouldn’t hurt her. There’s still a horse crazy girl inside me who believes she is every character in every horse book she ever read: who rode a bronc to win enough money to buy Misty, who won the Grand National on The Pie, who galloped the Black Stallion on the beach and on the track. She’s pretty content, as it happens, to spend time hanging out with horses in her back yard, forgetting about what she can train them to do and letting them teach her what they want to teach. Some adventures are best left in the past.

No Excuses

My friend Anna got me thinking about excuses yesterday. Specifically about excuses for not writing, but generally about excuses for why we don’t do the things we say we want to do. Why I don’t do the things I say I want to do. And why I say I want to do things that I don’t really want to do. My excuses vary, but not much. At their root they are mostly shoulds or fears. I say I want to do something because I think I should do it, or because someone else wants me to do it (or I think they want me to do it, or I think they think I should – my mind can be a tedious spiral). I don’t do something because I’m afraid I won’t be good at it, or I will look silly trying, or I will have to choose between it and another thing. Fear of choosing is the worst because it usually leads to doing nothing at all.

For years I said I wanted to write. I took writing classes on and off so I would have to write, in theory. When I took a class and had a deadline, I often wrote, but not always. Sometimes I would skip a week, and sometimes I would just drop out after a few classes. “I don’t have time” is a nice blanket excuse that people don’t question much, but the truth is that I’ve always had the time. I just didn’t make the time. I didn’t really know how to take a class for the pure pleasure of learning and working on a thing. I didn’t see the reasons behind my excuses about time.

I took classes sporadically, and I wrote even more sporadically. A few years ago, I joined a writing group and I started this blog. For the first couple of years I wrote when I felt moved to do so, and months would go by without me posting anything. Without me writing anything. It’s not like I had a pile of writings I started and didn’t finish – I wrote nothing in those in between times. I wrote more than I had before, but I still didn’t have anything I’d call a writing practice. Then my friend Elaine started posting a blog a week, and I thought “what a good idea – I can do that.” And so I did. To my great surprise, it really was that simple. Now there’s no question about it. It doesn’t matter if I have a great idea or if I love what I’m writing or if I have other things to do or if I feel like it. It’s a thing I do.

I’m taking writing classes again now, with a whole different outlook. The classes are not the reason I’m writing, or the only writing I’m doing. They are a way for me to practice different techniques, to hone my work, to get feedback from other writers, to be in community with other people with similar goals, to be inspired. I no longer skip assignments, and I understand now that when I’m procrastinating it’s because the assignment is hard or I haven’t figured out how to do it or the topic I’m writing about brings up things I’d rather not feel. These assignments are short. I can do anything for a page and a half. And I’m always glad I’ve done it, even if I fight doing it every step of the way.

Over the last month, yoga (speaking of things I fight every step of the way) has also become a thing I do. Last night Rose said “Do you want to do yoga?” and I said “No, but I’m going to” and she said “That’s exactly how I feel.” Our daily breathwork group is another thing I just do. Committing to a writing practice has made it easier to commit to other practices. Seeing that tiny, incremental, almost unnoticeable changes add up over time has made it easier not to worry about whether I notice if I am making progress. Just doing the thing has become more important than making progress.

Getting better at doing some things has not magically made me good at doing all the things. There are things I say I want to do, and even put on my calendar, and yet somehow never get to. My new rule is that if I put something on my calendar for a month and I don’t do it regularly, it gets axed. Studying for additional work certifications, for example, has gone on my calendar for what are clearly “I think I should do this” reasons and not because it’s something I want to do or feel is necessary for my job. This study time is no longer on my calendar.

Sometimes I get distracted by something that looks cool. I am constantly exposed to cool looking crafts because Rose is an amazingly skilled and dedicated artist and artisan – she knits, and sews, and quilts, and plays multiple instruments, and sings, and draws and paints, and makes wonderful things out of clay. Some of these things she did before I met her, and some I have gotten to watch her learn, and I see how much time she puts into each thing. I enjoy a few of these things (clay and music), and when I feel like it I practice them, and I know I would be better at them if I practiced more. But when I want to practice something, I find it’s usually writing, baking, photography, or messing about with the dogs. My dog training method is very … informal, let’s say, but I am dedicated to it, and to the dogs.

Working with my dogs and horses falls into a mix of the “want” and “should” categories. I have mostly accepted that I do the things I enjoy and want to do with them, and I don’t do the things that are on my or anyone else’s “should” list. I had a friend once say, when Rose and I were talking about how easy our horses are to ride, “Well, sure, they are easy for YOU to ride.” A couple of years ago we were at a clinic where the clinician was talking about setting up your horse so that if something catastrophic happened to you, your horse could be passed along to a total beginner and it would be successful. I spent some time thinking that I needed to make it possible for my horses to schlep along with any old rider on their backs doing any old thing, but you can probably guess how many steps I took towards that aim: zero.

Today when I look at things I’m making excuses not to do, or things I’m not making time for, the conversation I have with myself goes something like this:

Do you really want to do the thing? If so, do it.
Don’t worry about if you do it well immediately, or ever. Do it.
Do you get pleasure from it? Do it.
Are you learning something you want to learn from it? Do it.
If not – don’t do it. The end.