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.

Freedom

I wore a bra for almost a whole day recently. Well, not quite a bra – more of a yoga top with a shelf bra. And by “almost a whole day” I probably mean about six hours. Which, on that day, was an eternity during which half of my brain cells were engaged at any given time with how uncomfortable I was. As far as I recall, this is a perfectly fine top that I have never had any issues with before. But we are nearly a full year into pandemic changes, and my rules for clothing during most of that time have been 1. Doesn’t touch me, and/or 2. Doesn’t feel like wearing anything. Bras don’t make the cut. Not much does, really.

I find I’m thinking about clothes a lot lately, while wearing basically the same outfit every day. I have nighttime jammies and daytime jammies. Sometimes, like today, I wear my nighttime jammies all the next day. My t-shirt is purple, which seems fitting, as I seem to have developed early onset “when I am old woman I shall wear purple.” I didn’t have to do the pandemic growing out of the grey hair, since I had grey hair for several decades pre-pandemic, nor is this a really drastic change to my personal style. I have worked from home for a lot of years, and my nod to office wear most days used to be that I had several dress (for me) shirts hanging on the back of my desk chair, and if I had a video call with anyone who I thought might care, I’d put one of them on over my standard t-shirt and jeans. Jeans. I remember jeans.

For the first month or two of pandemic office wear, newly remote employees still wore at least nice tops to video calls. Now it’s all pandemic-casual, and t-shirts abound. Or maybe I’ve stopped noticing. Probably a combination of the two. I have exactly one pair of higher heeled office shoes, and they are in a drawer in the office I used to sometimes go to in another state, where they may remain until someone unearths them and finds them a new home. Even if I go back to the office I don’t expect I will go back to those shoes. In my thinking about clothing, I find that I’m wondering about people who wore all the office clothes all the time: suits, high heels – pantyhose, for god’s sake. Will anyone go back to wearing pantyhose?

I’m thinking a lot about why I wear or do certain things related to my appearance. In addition to not wearing bras, I haven’t shaved my legs in a year. That’s not an unusual state of affairs for me, but until last summer I usually at least shaved them in the warmer months. Why, though? I don’t care if my legs are hairy. There are things I don’t care about for my own sake that somehow I have cared about over the years. I’ll be 54 this year and I still remember being 13 and walking up to a store (it was The Gap, of course I remember the store) in Friendship Heights. Just as I reached for the door handle one of a trio of college age guys who had just passed me called to me, “You do NOT look good in short shorts” and he and his buddies all laughed. Solidly 40 years ago, and it still – what? Hurts? Not exactly. Or rather, not specifically. It hurts in that it reminds me how judgemental and hateful people can be about other people’s appearances, and it hurts more to know that I have ever changed anything about my appearance because I’m trying to avoid that kind of judgement. Even not wearing shorts of any length in public for too many years. Even shaving my legs. Even wearing a bra.

I’m pissed off that one of the reasons I’m glad I’m in the age range where women are largely invisible is that no one is going to judge someone they don’t even see. I’m pissed off at the number of things people are sold – literally and figuratively – as “self care,” as things that make us feel better, are things that either make us adhere more closely to the current cultural beauty standards or things that make us more attractive to the opposite sex. Those two things are in conflict more often than the so-called beauty industry would like us to believe, but neither one has anything to with how we feel about ourselves.

I’m wholeheartedly in favor of anyone doing what makes them feel good – wear make-up, don’t wear make-up. If you want to wear a ball gown or a three piece suit to the breakfast table, go for it. But even I, with my already absolute minimum of social niceties where clothing, hair, and make-up are concerned, do things solely because they are the things we do when we go out in public. And really, why? If I’m not physically comfortable NOT wearing a bra – as I would not be if I were going running, or riding a horse – sure, I’ll put one on. But going to the grocery store? Or, for that matter, going to the office? What kind of havoc-wreaking power do my unrestrained breasts have, and can I channel it into something useful?

I haven’t thrown the bras out – yet. But the longer I don’t have anyone but myself and Rose to dress for, to behave for, to speak for, the closer I get to finding out what my natural state is. And the closer I get to finding out what my natural state is, the more I like it.

Drama

Somehow it’s almost February. Earlier today I was trying to figure out if it was Wednesday or Thursday, and then I realized it’s Monday.

Dogs know how to bring the drama. Let me begin by saying that Scout is fine now. I, on the other hand, will be recuperating for a while after he gets his sutures out next week.

It started, as so many things do, with dog vomit. Around the middle of the first week in January – no wonder I can’t figure out where January went – Scout started vomiting. And then he stopped eating. I’ll leave out all the graphic details but over a week and a half it involved a trip to the dog ER, a trip to the regular vet, another trip to the regular vet, a trip to a different dog ER, surgery, and a couple nights in the dog hospital. It didn’t really start with dog vomit, I guess – it started with the dog eating something he had no business eating, which eventually needed to be removed, hence all the other things.

Anyway, he’s home now, he’s fine, he’s off all his meds, he’s eating, his incision looks great, he’s acting like himself. All good news!

And yet. I AM SO TIRED. I’m sure it’s not just because of the dog-related anxiety, and more that all my free-floating anxiety from the last year got a focal point during the dog-related anxiety. At first I was sleeping with one ear open to listen for Scout asking to go out, and taking him out in the middle of the night when needed. Which was probably once, maybe twice, but I didn’t want to miss hearing him. I’m not sure I can exactly call it progress when this turned into me going downstairs once an hour to make sure he was not dead. Full disclosure: I can make the vomiting and the not eating and the surgery sound scary, and it was scary to me, but he never really acted that sick. The likelihood of him dropping dead was pretty minuscule. But the worry about it was real, and the lack of sleep was even more real.

I have two primary go-to activities for major stress: eating and baking. It’s been a baking kind of weekend. Yesterday, in between baking three loaves of two different kinds of bread, I told Rose that I wanted to do nothing but bake for about a week. I’ve been going to sleep reading recipes for complicated layer cakes, and waking up with plans for my own recipes which might be really bad ideas. Then again, the actual cookbook I’m reading in bed has things like green curry banana cake, and I’m not sure I can do much worse than that. It didn’t even occur to me until today – Thursday? Wednesday? – that my inability to think about much besides baking is stress related. In related obliviousness, it hadn’t occurred to me that the anxiety about the dog was super sized because of all the general anxiety I’ve been trying to pretend I haven’t been feeling.

I’m happy to report that even though my brain is full of fog, I can still bake bread. True, one of the loaves bears no resemblance to the shape it is supposed to have, but it has all the right ingredients, it’s baked well, and it’s delicious. It has cheese in it, which may be cheating (of course it’s delicious!), but still. The other two loaves look perfect. But about the time I was ending my yoga practice this evening and realized that during savasana I was doing a little supine dance to the music, I decided that I don’t care so much about the form of things right now. Including, apparently, this blog post. Hug your dogs, keep them from eating their toys, bake bread and cake and enjoy it even if it’s weird, and dance even when you’re supposed to be doing corpse pose. Those are my lessons from January, if that’s even what month it is.

Lessons

Boo and I went to a training class for the first time when he was three. He already knew the basic things I need all my dogs to know: come, sit, down. He knew roll over and high five because I thought that would be fun. When I said “Boo, what do you have?” he would merrily bring me the thing he had snuck from a surface somewhere and was chewing up in the middle of the floor – a sock, a hat, a bill, a packet of tomato seeds. He was like a one-canine scavenger hunt, but he was happy to share his findings with me when I asked.

The class we signed up for was a tricks class, because again – fun. He is the happiest dog I know and he loves to play, so I figured this would be a good place to start. Plus I wanted him (and me) to get out of the house some, and be around people we don’t know in places we haven’t been before to try new stuff. Spoiler alert: this is a very human definition of “fun.” It’s not even my definition of fun for me, but for some reason I thought he would feel differently.

Because I had never taken him to a class with other dogs before, not even a puppy class, I did not know what to expect, but he was super good. He ignored the other dogs, he stayed with me when I let him off leash, he obeyed all the commands he knew just as well as he did at home. He willingly went with the instructor and obeyed the commands he knew from her too, and did his best to follow her instructions when she asked him to do something new.

He was also extremely subdued, which is not a state I am used to seeing him in, not even at the vet’s office. When I take him to the boarding kennel he runs happily into the arms of whoever is working in the office. He’s just a happy little guy, and he was not his normal self in class. Aside from the newness of other dogs, strange people, and a new place, it was an indoor place. We do have some house rules, and while any amount of zooming and wrestling and jumping is fine outside, the dogs tone it down inside. Boo and Scout mostly do what we call “whisper-play” in the house. The training facility was a small indoor warehouse and maybe he thought there was a rule against romping. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like it. All the newness and all the learning had one effect I am certain of: it made him tired.

Just like how I have struggled to find a yoga class that works for me, I have struggled to find dog training classes that work for me and my dogs. In both things I can go pretty quickly from the logistical difficulties (it’s too far away, I don’t like the way the teacher teaches, it’s too crowded, the other attendees get on my nerves) to an existential crisis (Why am I doing this, anyway? Is it even my idea, or just something I think I should do?). This also happens with my horses, though it’s been years since I felt like taking a horse to a lesson.

For both the horses and the dogs, my existential crisis is around the “why.” In theory, classes are a way of getting out with other like-minded people with the same interests, a way of giving a horse or dog experience with new situations and other animals, a way to keep them (or us) from getting bored or stale at home. It’s also less expensive to take a group lesson a private lesson.

I’ve been to many barns and dog training facilities where the focus is on competition. Competition is encouraged as an opportunity to put what you and your animal have learned into action. Students of a facility who perform well at competitions are also an advertising tool for the facility, but that’s another story – or maybe it isn’t.

All of these reasons for attending classes and for competing sound really people-centric to me. Exactly one of my dogs likes being around strange dogs, and even he is wary at first. The rest of the reasons, from showing what you know to being exposed to new stimuli to alleviating boredom – all human. I read an article recently about managing stress in agility dogs and I was somewhere between amused, intrigued, and mildly outraged that at no point did the article even mention how stressed humans get at competitions and the effect that will have on their animals. I feel like I should throw in a statement here that I know people and dogs who purely love agility. I know this is not about the sport – it’s about me, and how I feel about both competitions and group activities. Maybe everywhere in this post I should replace “human” with “extrovert.”

There are humans – perhaps the extroverts, perhaps others too – who enjoy all of the things above, plus they also like competing. For me, the stress is the most notable thing – certainly at competitions, but sometimes even at classes. I know I will pass that on to my dog or horse, and the alleged up side for the dog or horse doesn’t outweigh the down side. I’m still not convinced the up side is an up side from the perspective of the actual animal. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are definite potential benefits to training a dog or horse. I say “potential” because it’s so easy to start pushing too hard and cause more problems than we solve. But there are benefits: physical strength and endurance, mental stimulation, connection with the animal. That last one, though, still maybe more of a human desire. I have brought horses and dogs into my life and I interact with them daily, so I do think developing a connection and a relationship with them is key – because they are stuck with me. I don’t think that in the abstract there’s a horse out there saying “If only I had a human” in quite the way I might say “If only I had a horse.”

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic restrictions has been that I finally found a yoga practice that works for me. A little over a year ago, I discovered that I actually enjoy yin yoga. I found a teacher I liked, in a studio about five minutes from my house. Even so, I managed to dread going to class almost more than I enjoyed having been to class. The tie-breaker was how I felt during class, which had a lot to do with who showed up on any given day. This is strikingly similar to how I feel about going to the dog training facility that’s five minutes from my house in the opposite direction. I freely admit that my inability to keep other people’s energy off me is entirely my issue, but it is my issue and I can’t just ignore it and hope for the best. I tried that for the first 53 years and now I’m ready to try something different.

In this year of Zoom everything, I know a lot of people who feel they have been saved by the ability to take Zoom yoga, or or pilates, or whatever classes they were taking in studios before. They have been able to take a class with the same people they are used to taking classes with in person, and they are still able to feel connected to those people. Since I did not have people I was used to taking class with, or even people I particularly wanted to take class with, this was not a big motivator for me.

What I started with was Youtube videos. I found a yoga instructor I liked who had videos I liked. Rose and I did one of the videos a couple of times. What we both found we like better, though, is to create our own sequence of yoga poses, whether yin or restorative, put them in a yoga timer app, and then pick our own music and do our own thing. There are some drawbacks. We got terrible giggles when I misspelled “savasana” as “shivasana” and the yoga timer app voice yelled “SHEEva-sana,” and every time she blurts out “BANANA” I think of the grocery store self check out voice saying “Put your BANANAS in the bag,” but a little laughter during yoga isn’t such a bad thing. This homegrown yoga practice is the best I have done with getting what I’ve been looking for from yoga: a combination of relaxation, meditation, and very gradually increasing flexibility. It is, in fact, the first time I can actually say I have a yoga practice – one which I do every day.

At the same time as I have figured out a yoga practice, I have also found a Zoom group that I like. It’s a breath work group, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sense of community I get from it. I didn’t know what to expect since I’ve never done breath work except in the context of riding horses. It’s the first time in a long time I have done a group activity that actually did give me the feeling of being around like-minded people, even if the only way in which we are like-minded is that we have committed to doing the same thing – and it is a commitment, six days a week. I don’t think that is the only thing, but it’s useful for me to recognize that even if it were, that could be enough.

It took me nearly a year of not being able to physically attend classes I didn’t really want to attend anyway to figure out what works for me. I’m pretty sure I can apply that to my dogs and horses as well. There aren’t really that many criteria: it has to be something we all enjoy, something we find relaxing, something that everyone gets something out of. There are a lot of different ways to learn things, and I can live with being creative about that, even if we do it all at home. If it also makes me giggle, so much the better.

Terra Firma

Rose doesn’t love it when people ask how we chose our farm name and I say it was bestowed upon us by a drunk man at a party, but it’s true, and I do kind of love the way it came about.

The barn we were running at the time of the party was our first farm together and our only boarding barn. Our then dressage instructor had been leasing the farm for several years, boarding horses and teaching lessons, but she had bought her own place. Rose and I decided to go into business together – this was before we were together together – and lease the farm ourselves.

The name of the farm under our dressage instructor was Centerline, and while fitting for a dressage barn, it was also her business name and was traveling to her new home with her. Not to mention that, inherited boarders aside, we were not all that interested in running a dressage barn. The farm was on the border of two counties, and there was a lot about it that was held together with duct tape and baling twine – or in the case of the fences, multiflora rose bushes and wishful thinking. We settled on the name Borderline Farm, which I thought brought just the right amount of snark to the dressage clientele, and which exactly none of them found at all funny.

Things only got more dressagey after that, as not only did we have the dressage instructor who used to lease the barn coming back weekly to teach lessons to her clients who were now our boarders, we brought in another dressage instructor and several of his clients to board as well. He was a well thought of rider from a well known local dressage program, and also young and very handsome, and he had quite a following of older women with expensive horses that mostly he, not they, rode. Let’s just say if I had set out to attract boarders who I will loosely call “my people,” these would not have been they, but there were stalls to be filled and bills to be paid.

The young dressage instructor threw a Christmas party for his clients, and Rose and I were invited and attended. We were by then together together, and not just running the business together. We all took the excuse of being away from the barn for once to wear something other than our barn clothes. I had on an actual dress and, as I recall, eye make-up. Near the start of the party another woman and I started to introduce ourselves before we realized that a) she was one of our boarders and b) we had known each other longer than probably anyone else in the room. Horse people in party clothes are often unrecognizable.

There were people there that we truly did not know, however, in the cases where a boarder had brought her husband along. It was one of these husbands who had been talking to me and Rose for some time, when suddenly he pointed to me and said, I thought, “Tara.” I sighed and pointed to myself and said “Tessa,” because the two most common names people confuse my name with are Tara and Teresa. He shook his head harder than I thought wise for so drunk a person and pointed again, saying “No, Terra. You’re Terra — ” and then, pointing to Rose, “and she’s Firma.” I still don’t know where that came from – it was a complete non sequitur even by drunk party talk standards – but it had something to do with that talking to us was a very different experience than he had found talking to anyone else in the room. Whatever his level of drunkenness or his skill at observation, he had hit on something we instantly recognized as true for us.

We moved on from that farm to lease another farm, and changed our business name to Terra Firma Farm. It has remained so through several other moves until we landed here, at the property we bought and which has become our true terra firma. The drunk dressage husband at the party was right, though – the two of us together are our own, and each other’s, terra firma.

Nothing has reminded me of that so much as the past year when it’s been just us and the animals here. I got to thinking over the weekend about an intention word – I’m not a big fan of resolutions, but I like the idea of picking a word as an intention for the year. Unfortunately last year my word was “pause,” something I would like to learn to do more, but then the so-called normal world came screeching to halt and I got a little nervous about the power of manifesting intent.

The word that popped into my head for this year was “faith,” and I still think it’s a good one – not like religious faith, but more like faith in the workings of the world, faith in other people, and – particularly challenging for me sometimes – faith in myself. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a terra firma kind of year. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. As Anne Lamott, and probably many others, said, the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, it’s faith. Last year was a year filled with doubt, and a distinct lack of solid ground. May this year be filled with faith in my own terra firma, faith in my ability to be terra firma for my loved ones, faith in my ability to manifest more terra firma in the world. Not such a bad thing to reach for in the new year.