Nothing

This is probably going to be a disjointed piece. I started it for one reason, and set it aside, and then it popped back into my head for an entirely different reason, which now seems like what I was waiting for to get to the point I wasn’t sure I had.

“Instead of trying to help the horse handle more they get more careful. And the more careful they get,the more careful they have to be. And pretty soon the horse has trained them to do nothing.” –Harry Whitney

 

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I heard this quote at a horsemanship clinic, and it sounded uncomfortably familiar. I have a horse like this, one who who has trained me to do nothing to the point that I had stopped even approaching him except to feed. He seems to be very fond of people, me included, as long as we just hang around and don’t ask anything – at all – of him. It’s human requests for work that are the problem.

Based on his past it’s a reasonable problem that he has with the requests; I can’t argue with his logic. He was clearly asked to do far too much far too young. I have always said his dressage career was like asking a third grader who shows promise in math by learning the multiplication tables easily to do calculus, and then declaring him a failure when he couldn’t understand it.

Before that he was given good basics from someone who was a wonderful and gentle horseman right up until a horse flatly refused to do something, and then the beatings began. Just till the point that the horse decided to comply, and then it was all peace and gentleness again. I imagine this is confusing to a horse.

It’s particularly easy for me with a horse with this background, who is also very large,  who is also very reactive, to back off and back off and back off till the point I am not even there. The whole idea of making myself noticeable enough for the horse to start to care what I might be asking is something I had stopped considering.

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Backing off to the point of doing nothing is a behavior I learned well from humans pretty early in my life. It’s one of those behaviors that served me in the past, and though it doesn’t actually serve me in the present I’ve gotten so adept at it I sometimes don’t even know I’m doing it. I became aware of it as a bad relationship pattern in my adult life and so I first thought it was a something I started as an adult. But then I had a conversation with my high school boyfriend, now a good friend, who told me he had been talking to his therapist about me before I came for a visit and he had said “She was the perfect woman for me because she didn’t ask anything of me.” Talk about a good opening line for me to take to my own therapist.

As a child I learned young that it was best to slide through my days without asking for anything. The less I needed or asked for, the safer it was to walk through my house. This is not a crazy thing to extrapolate later to a large and reactive animal who could actually hurt me without even trying to. It may, however, be a little crazy that at some point in my life I became proud of being so undemanding, proud that I don’t ask anything of anyone.

Not wanting to get big enough to get my horse’s attention is more complicated than “I want him to like me.” It’s also that I don’t want to upset him to the point I get hurt. It’s also that I don’t want to be the person he feels like he has to tiptoe around, because I know what that feels like. I don’t want to be the crazy person that makes everyone else afraid.

Not wanting to be demanding enough in my human relationships to get attention – well, I’m not sure if that’s a different story or not. It does have something to do with “I want them to like me,” but also with believing that my worth to someone else is defined by what I can (and will) do for them, and not by who I am. It also has to do with “I don’t want to upset him to the point that I get hurt.”

And this brings us to yesterday, when I started thinking again about what I wrote above and then tabled for several months. When I started seeing the “me too” hashtag on social media around stories of sexual harrassment, I had very mixed feelings. My first thought was that I didn’t really have any stories like that, but when I thought about it a bit more I realized that my stories are just so commonplace I don’t even think about them as harrassment. A male friend asked his friends on social media what he could read to better understand. I suggested he ask women he knows for their stories, and then I told him mine.

What I wrote to him began: “At first my “me too” was just (“just!”) about random occasional catcalls and yelled comments from construction workers or whoever, “it’s a joke” statements by people known and unknown, moments of fear on city streets, in dark parking lots, on the subway.”

The more I wrote, the more I remembered specific incidents, some with people I knew and respected and trusted, and the more horrified I became at what I have come to think of as normal. As I also wrote to this friend: “I don’t consider that anything bad has ever happened to me. I had to think long and hard about whether I had a “me too” because it’s just how things are for women. I feel like I have never not known how to walk with a purpose, how to deliberately make myself not look like a potential victim. It’s impossible to learn those skills without knowing you are doing so because you ARE a potential victim, because you can in fact be overpowered far too easily.”

The most recent articles and conversations I have read on this topic have been about one highly publicized incident that has engendered a lot of comments like “Why didn’t she leave?” and “How could he be expected to read her mind?” I think my fascination with this particular conversation has been that I can see both sides so easily, and I don’t see a clear right and wrong. I think about how I have learned to do nothing, to not react, in situations where I feel afraid, and how the more afraid I feel the less I do, in an effort not to trigger a response I don’t think I can handle.

I have a lot of places where I know that my horsemanship and the rest of my behavior in life are inexctricable from one another. As I contemplate how to work with my horses in order to get to where I want to be – knowing what I am asking for, asking for it clearly, and shaping the response I get into something that the two of us are doing together with both of us fully present – I realize how much of this work is mine alone to do.

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Grieving Through My Earrings

My earring collection caught my eye today when I was sorting laundry. It’s pretty extensive, and it’s also pretty. A particular pair of gold squares with asymetrical silver cross pieces and blue stones struck me. Like most of my earrings they were a gift, and while trying to remember when my mother gave me those earrings (they look like something she would have chosen), I realized they were in fact a gift from my spouse, the most recent earrings she has given me in our twenty four years together.

I first got my ears pierced with my best friend when I was eleven years old. Her mother took us to a jewelry store where they used the combination piercer/earring inserter that sounds just like a hole punch you’d use on paper. When I was eighteen, my older sister decided she finally wanted to get her ears pierced and I went along for moral support. That jewelry store was having a “buy two, get one free” piercing sale, and my sister only wanted the conventional two earrings, one per ear, so I used the free one to get a second hole in my left ear. A few years later at college, I got a third hole in my left ear from a friend in my apartment one night. I had one of my old pointy starter earrings, and he had ice and a history of piercing his own ears (I think he was up to 17 holes total by then), so he iced me up and stuck the earring through my earlobe. I remain intrigued by the fact that that is the only one of my 4 earring holes that has never had been infected.

For my whole life I have never been fashionable, knowledgeable about fashion, or really even dimly aware of what’s fashionable. I lean towards jeans and t-shirts, or very plain colors. A lot of black. A lot of blue. A lot of sage (to the point that my spouse once gently took a shirt out of my hands in a store and, hanging it back on the rack, said “I think we have enough sage”). I have always tended to match pieces by color and not so much by print. I might get away with wearing a paisley shirt with a similarly toned flowered skirt now – I am 50, and I could call it “power clashing” – but when I was in the sixth grade that outfit was not a winner among my peers.

What I have always done is accessorize interestingly with earrings. I may be wearing jeans and a plain sage shirt, but if you add in dangly purple-shading-to-pink titanium flamingos, you stand out just enough. I have a pair of broccoli earrings that my mother gave me during a period when mostly what I wanted to eat was broccoli, and I used to wear them almost as often as I ate the broccoli. My earrings are weird, beautiful, and funny, and sometimes all three at once. For decades now I have worn only tiny diamonds with gold posts in my two auxiliary holes, but my two original piercings have displayed the full variety of my earring collection.

Earrings are a great fall-back gift idea for anyone with pierced ears. I have been given many earrings over the years. There’s a wonderful book called Love, Loss, and What I Wore that is a memoir told through the outfits that the author wore for different events in her life. For me, earrings tell a story like that, only more to do with the people who gave me the earrings. One of my many inaccurate beliefs about relationships used to be that if someone knew how to pick earrings for me, it showed we were meant to be together. Lapses like that aside, earrings and memories of the friends who gave them to me are inextricably linked. And I have had no more prolific giver-of-earrings than my mother.

It is twelve years since my mother died. For the first few years after her death I rotated between a pair of subtly unmatched diamonds she once gave me that were made from two rings inherited from family members, and the first pair of earrings I bought for myself after she died. I had had the diamonds for close to twenty years, and somehow lost one of them. Perhaps down the shower drain; I never knew. I was upset, but not as much as I expected. It seemed somehow logical that the time for those earrings was past. Since then I have rarely worn earrings, aside from my two tiny auxiliary diamonds in my left ear, which never come out. My ears started to get infected when I did put on earrings, and I just drifted into not bothering.

Late this past summer I bought myself another pair of tiny diamonds with gold posts. I now wear them, along with my other two, all the time, day and night. Every so often I check to see if they are there, but mostly I don’t think about them. I viewed this as my first step toward becoming a wearer of earrings again. A way to reaccustom my ears, and my heart, to the idea.

That was several months ago, and today, my earring collection caught my eye. It is dusty, and many of the earrings are tarnished, but the gold and silver and blue of the earrings from my spouse shone an invitation. I think that after twelve years I am ready to go through them all again, deciding which to keep, cleaning and shining and sitting with the memories as I go.groovy

New Tricks

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My youngest dog loves to learn new tricks. He goes at everything he does with everything he has, and he happily offers every trick he knows if he thinks you might want something from him. Sit? Down? Roll over? I can do it! I can do it all! We have some agility obstacles set up in the yard and he may fly off to jump through the hoop and then run back to sit in front of me looking very pleased with himself. He also incorporates the obstacles into his zoomies, jumping the pole or zipping through the tunnel as he runs in crazy circles around the yard.

The older young dog is more targeted in his activities. He particulary loves to jump. He jumps the horse cavaletti. He jumps the agility bar. He jumps the hoop – he doesn’t jump THROUGH the hoop; he jumps the whole hoop. He jumps the tunnel. If you tell him “jump,” he just jumps. Into the air. With no obstacles anywhere nearby. He will obey other commands in slow motion. He has an excellent eventual sit, and a very good gradual down. But he will use what he knows for his own purposes: when he wants me to take him out, or when we are out and he wants to go somewhere else, he will run to my left hip and heel me.

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The old dog has never had any interest in leaving the ground, even when he was a young dog. If you try to lift him up he somehow makes himself three times as heavy. Jumping requires a lot of treats (and a very low jump), and climbing on anything is out of the question. One of the reasons his first owners gave him to us when he was a year and a half was that he was a “failed” agility dog. He is very obedient at sit, down, heel, stay – as long as you have treats and there is nothing more compelling in sight, hearing or sound. He is also the best tennis ball retriever I have ever known.

I went back to school as an old person. At 41 I had not thought of myself as old, but as soon as I sat in a classroom surrounded by kids half my age, the age of my youngest child, I felt a hundred and ten years old. I simultaneously felt twelve, in a new school, and very unsure of my welcome. My professors at least had the decency to be my age or older.

I was never much of a student, at any level. Like my middle dog, if something caught my interest I would do it very well and would work hard at it. Otherwise it was something of a crapshoot as to whether the teacher would grade me on my tests and papers, or on if I did the homework (or later, in college the first time, if I showed up to class). I might find that I got A’s on all the tests but wound up with a C or a D in the class due to lack of effort.

As an old person, I expected this to change. It did not. Part of why I left college the first time without finishing was my lack of interest in jumping through hoops. Now I was back and still being required to round out my education by taking the history and social science classes I never took the first time, and retaking classes that I had taken twenty years before. Biology they felt I needed to take again, but they assumed I would remember inorganic chemistry. They were mistaken.

By about my third semester I was really struggling with how I could be so sure that I wanted to be there, and that I wanted to be studying the field I was studying, and yet I had to take so many classes – even classes in my field of study – that I had no interest in.

At 19 I had begun college as a biology major. I tried a little of everything: in 3 years I majored in biology, political science, Russian, and philosophy. By the time I quit I was double majoring in biology and philosophy. Twenty years later, I went back to get a degree in animal science. My original thought was to take only the classes I needed for vet school, but then it became important to me to actually get a degree, and then I realized that if I was 110 now I would be about 217 by the time I finished vet school, which I realized I didn’t really want to do anyway. Clearly all those intervening years had done wonders for my abililty to make up my mind.

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Fortunately there were a few options in the animal science department, and I was able to find one that was more animaly and less sciencey. In my 40’s I found that either my brain could no longer retain information the same way it used to, or it had developed a filter that went something like “Nope, don’t need to memorize THAT just to prove that I can.” I was able to avoid taking physics again, and took what I can only call organic chemistry for dummies, which I somehow actually enjoyed.

I did graduate, and I even spoke at my graduation, and got to tell everyone else that if their parents ever gave them any grief about taking an extra year or two to get through school, they could say “Well, at least it took me less than TWENTY FIVE years!” I’m sure the parents loved me for that.

When I went back to school I envisioned that I would somehow become like my youngest dog, full of enthusiasm and desire to achieve. My youngest dog is now a year older than my oldest dog was when he came to us, and I can only conclude that some things really are just part of who we are. I may always be cranky about doing things I am required to do, I may only want practice the things I like to do, but I’m glad that even if it takes me approxomately forever to finish the things that are important to me, I do get around to it in the end.

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The Artful Codger

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A month and a day ahead of my 50th birthday, my creativity is starting to show the way my grey hair did in my early 20’s.

I was never one to cover it up but I was really good at ignoring it. I had a lot of explanations  – I was a towheaded child turned mousy brown adolescent, so maybe they were blond and not grey hairs. There weren’t many at first. I got them from my mother. It was the stress of college. My last boyfriend. Moving to New England. It wasn’t really me.

I am still surprised when I get my hair cut and my black salon cape is all covered with white hairs. Whose are those? When I look in the mirror I still see multiple colors. Enough people ask me if I dye my hair (why would I dye it grey?) or talk about how much they hate their grey hair that I can believe that they also don’t see mine as grey. Until they turn to me and say “Oh, no – I mean, it looks great on YOU.”

I have never been the artistic type. Can’t draw or paint, can’t sing, can dance a little, but my oldest sister was the ballerina in the family. I have had pockets of things I enjoy and can do well but they are things like calligraphy and pottery – things with a pre-defined form. They seem too much like paint by numbers to qualify as artistic pursuits. It’s not creative if you are following a pre-set form, right? Surely I can just pluck out that one grey hair.

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Writing is more my game, but not creative writing, so again: form. Who can’t string a sentence or two together? My parents were writers, and my aunt and uncle. Published in real newspapers and magazines. I’m not a real writer. I just play around with it. Post a funny caption on facebook now and then with my dog photos. And the photographs? Everyone has a smart phone now. Who doesn’t take photos? Apps and filters can make anything look good. A decent haircut with good layering helps disguise the increasing numbers of grey hairs, right?

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I love my animals. I’m no good at taking photos of people, and I have trouble getting the colors right when I take landscape photos, sunsets, or flower photos. Because my horses won’t leave me alone when I am in their fields, I am forced to take close-ups of horse parts. It’s just something that happens. They make me laugh, so obviously it’s not art, it’s just silliness. What do you mean, when did I start to go grey? Grey? Me?

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I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer, a photographer, creative, an artist. Those are things that other people are. Those are things you are just good at. If you have to work at it, you aren’t it. But if it slips in around the edges, if you just do it now and then, if it starts to take up more of your time…when does it become who you are? When does the brown haired person become the grey haired person? How many days of practice, what number of grey hairs, causes one to become the other?

I am still in the early stages of seeing the creative bits in the mirror. Just a little one here or there. Maybe more in the back – is that why other people see it when I can’t? Like my hair, I think I will just let it go. I don’t have the personality for hair dye. It’s too hard to maintain. I’d rather just let it take over, let it look how it looks, deal with the sometimes funny comments, and get on with my life. It took probably twenty years for my first grey hairs to become a grey head of hair, and ten more for me to admit it. I hope to allow the creativity to seep in a little faster, and to recognize it when it comes.

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Old Dog

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My old dog likes to help me feed the horses. It something we do alone together, which is his favorite part. He polices the younger dogs, but they make him tired, and if he could speak I think he would yell at them “You kids get off my lawn!” When it is just him and me, he trots along next to me. More so if I have treats in my pockets, when he is so focused on me he sometimes runs into things.

As an old dog, he no longer ducks under the fence and chases the horses, usually in the exact opposite of the direction I want them to move. He doesn’t roll in horse poop, or eat his weight in it. He almost never runs off after the sight or scent of rabbit, fox, neighbor cat. When he does separate from me, he usually comes back when I call him, though it helps if I can get in his line of sight and reach for my pocket. I am not sure if he is losing his hearing or if he just hears selectively. He certainly has no trouble hearing the rustle of the treat bag in the kitchen.

The old dog still loves to chase a tennis ball, and still has no off switch. I have to count throws and put the ball away so he does not run to the point he falls down. He likes to feed with me because it is something he can still do easily, and we are not out too long, and afterwards he can take a nap. If we have to fill the water troughs and it’s a longer trip, he stumps along next to me on the way back to the house muttering under his breath.

I realized this past winter that he is starting to remind me of my father.

My father died five years ago, and last Saturday was his 91st birthday. I’d like to say I miss him, but I more miss the idea of him in the world than I do miss the actual him in my life. I was sad when he died, but I was also relieved, and the relief was bigger than the sad. The last few months before we got him 24 hour home health care, I stayed with him a lot. I was worried that when he was alone he would fall down the stairs – but then when I was there I was worried that I would push him down the stairs.

The things I like to remember about my father, especially in his later years, are all about his love of life. His equivalents of chasing tennis balls and helping feed the horses. He loved to walk long past the point it was safe for him on the uneven city sidewalks around his home. He was horrified at the idea of a wheelchair, but then he loved being squired around in it by his home health aide, who wheeled him to his “office” (Starbucks) every morning to meet with his “colleagues” (his typical mix of everyone from high powered executives on their way to work to homeless people who hung out at the outside tables with a single cup of coffee all morning).

He spent a week at hospice as an in-patient and he came out again the weekend of a big festival in his neighborhood, which his home health aide took him to. I arrived to visit  him before they got home, and when they came in, my father pulling himself up the railing of his many stairs, being balanced from behind by his aide, he looked up at me with a huge smile and said “Guess what I did at the festival?” I had no idea, and said so, and he said “I DANCED!”

While I am sad for my father that he is no longer alive, because he really loved living, I am not really sad for me, most of the time. When I think of losing my old dog, however, I am sad already –  and he is still here and still fine.

My old dog was once my young dog. His nickname was “Runs Twice as Fast,” when compared to our then old dog. He was tireless, and he didn’t listen all that well, and he chased the horses, and he would run off and disappear for hours and come home having rolled in something long dead, stinking to high heaven and so, so pleased with himself.

I am counting on him living forever, and it seems likely I will be disappointed. But we will keep on feeding the horses together, and gently chasing tennis balls, and sitting in the grass in the sun whenever we can.

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Daily Dog – in which we begin a daily writing practice

ReachI am not a dog person. When I was in my early 20’s I liked to say that I felt the same way about men, dogs and children: though I liked individual ones a great deal, I felt the general concepts were poor ones. My three children came into my life not long after that, but it would be at least another ten years before I got my first dog.

When my kids did come into my life – or rather, I came into theirs – they were three, five and nine, and trying to understand the changes in their world. They had lived with their mom and dad, and now they lived mostly with their dad, and sometimes with their mom and me, who they had previously known as their mom’s friend from the barn (“there’s that horse smell again,” the middle one said when I came to visit once wearing my oldest, stinkiest sweater). Now the youngest often drew pictures of her family: daddy, mommy, herself, sister, brother. On one of our Wednesday evening visits she turned to me and said “Do you love your daddy?”

“Do I love MY daddy?” I asked, wanting to answer the right question.

“No, do you love MY daddy?”

Hmm. “I don’t actually know your daddy very well,” I replied.

“Well, he doesn’t like you.” This was not exactly news to me.

“He doesn’t actually know me all that well either.”

“Why doesn’t he like you?”

“Honey, that is a question you will have to ask your dad.”

At this point the 9 year old chimed in: “We have. He won’t tell us.”

“In that case I really don’t know what to tell you.”

And then the 5 year old: “I think I know why it is.”

“Why is that, sweetie?”

“I think it’s because you’re a cat person and he’s a dog person.”

“You know, I think that’s EXACTLY it.” So there you have it. Blended families through the true lens of a 5 year old.

Also, it is true that I have always had cats. I grew up with two, and at the time of the conversation above I had four. I also have many of the qualities of a cat: I like affection but mostly on my terms, and I may both demand it and stalk away from it at will. I’m skeptical of new people in my territory (though I rarely resort to peeing on their belongings). I can be tricky to approach but if I have decided I like you I can be quite cuddly. I like being rubbed on the top of my head (except for when I don’t).

Somehow I have become a person with one cat and three dogs. And I posted so many photos of my dogs on facebook I had to start limiting myself to once a day, which was the genesis of the Daily Dog.

It seems that I should be able to write at least as often as I post dog photos. It’s a bit of a stretch for me, but if Scout can catch that frisbee (and he did), I see no reason not to set aside my excuses and just write.

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