Ancestry

A few years ago, some time after I did DNA testing to find out my dogs’ breeds, I sent in my own DNA sample (to a different site) to find out my own breeding. The only surprise was that there were no surprises: I am exactly as advertised on both sides of my lineage. I put up a family tree with roughly four names in it and then forgot about it.

Last September I got a message from someone who appears to be related to me, with some pretty detailed information about my maternal grandmother’s immediate relations. I ignored it for several months, because once upon a time when I was in junior high I answered the phone and the man on the other end asked to speak to Darcy (my sister) and I told him she was away at college and he asked if she was staying in Charlottesville (which was where she was) for the summer, and then he asked if my mother Dorrie was still working at the Renwick, and he asked after my father John and how the real estate business was at Chatel Real Estate, and then he said “Do you fuck?” so I have forty-odd years of trust issues with strangers who know a lot of details about my family.

But eventually I decided that not every stranger with a lot of details about my family is a creep, even on the internet, so I responded, and I’ve been having a lovely conversation with – hang on a minute while I go look up first and second vs once- or twice-removed cousins again – my second cousin, who has a much better knowledge of our family and also a much better memory for those things than I have. I know almost all of the names but have forgotten most of the relationships, and somehow it slipped my mind that all of my great aunts and uncles with names like Toddy and Kitty and Sweedie and Appie and Nanie had more regular given names, and that even some of the names that didn’t sound like nicknames were (Pete’s given name was Nathaniel, for instance). As someone who has a name that isn’t a nickname but sounds like one, I appreciate this.

My sister Darcy was the one who would have known all of these family facts. I would have loved to hear a conversation between her and this particular cousin, tracing our family back who knows how many generations. I can’t hold up my end of the conversation very well but I am enjoying it, and I feel a little like I am talking to my sister again.

For this and many reasons, I’ve been thinking about my grandmother (Dutch or Dutchie, born Frances) and the stories I wish I could hear again and listen to differently this time, and the things I’d like to ask her. Thinking about that also got me thinking about my mother, my father, my aunt, my sister – the people whose stories I can no longer listen to. I think of the questions I wish I could ask them, or that I wish I had thought to ask them. In my family, most of these people did not tell a lot of stories or answer a lot of direct questions, so some of this wishful thinking includes wishing that they had been different people, or that I had been a different person, or that we had been a different family.

In the absence of a do-over with any of my family members, I’ll do my best to pay attention to the ones that remain when they have something they want to tell me. It may not matter much in the grand scheme of things if anyone is left who knows that Gene was the third brother or that every one of my relations named Frances chose to go by their middle name, but it makes me feel better to try to be one of those people. If it meant enough to someone I loved for them to tell it to me, then it can be one of the ways I remember them and love them still.

Late Bloomer

It’s spring, it’s sunny, it’s warm, and in the words of Stuart Smalley, I’m shoulding all over myself. This is the time of year I’ve been waiting for, right? The weather I’ve been waiting for, the time to shed off the winter blahs, the time to do all the things. This I know: I don’t feel like it. I don’t even feel like writing, but here I am. I am taking two writing classes right now and haven’t written anything I like for either one of them. I don’t like the pieces we are using as models, and I like the pieces I’m writing from the models even less. I did just take a look at the next assignment for one of the classes and the instructor began her analysis of the piece by saying “I’m not sure we’ve ever studied a narrative technique revolving around bad-temperedness” and I thought: FINALLY! Something I can get behind.

The only thing I have felt like doing is baking cake, but even cake did not go as planned this weekend. I had a custard disaster, in which I was first reminded of the important lesson “don’t multi-task when the custard is on the burner” (chai flavored scrambled egg) and then that it’s important to know the right amount of gelatin to use (chai flavored egg soup) and then that you don’t try to reheat the watery custard if you’ve already put gelatin in it (I’m not really sure what to call the result: hot chai flavored egg soup with bits of rubber cement?). Fortunately the custard was a non-critical element. I tasted all the other elements individually so I’m fairly sure they will work out together. It’s a dirty chai layer cake, so it’s coffee and chai cake, white chocolate coffee ganache, nameless coffee crunchy bits, and coffee and chai buttercream. That has to be good, or at least edible. Maybe I’ll try it out for breakfast.

I’m not really sure what to do when baking therapy, writing therapy, walking therapy, horse therapy, and even dog therapy aren’t working. The cat has her own ideas which mostly involve attacking my legs as I walk by, so I haven’t tried snuggling her (a dangerous proposition on our best days, which most certainly neither of us is having right now). I don’t feel like gardening, and anyway it’s mostly too early for that here. Debris from last year is still sheltering this year’s beneficial critters, and it’s far too early to plant most new plants. I could be digging holes for trees, but I haven’t bought the trees yet, and in my experience it’s best to wait or you just have a yard full of holes.

The full impact of the past year is still sinking in. I haven’t seen two of my kids since January of last year, and the third who lives only one state away I’ve only seen maybe four times. I am pining for them all. I complain about traveling for work but I also miss it. I don’t care for the big city but I even miss going to New York. I have been saying for years that all of my line of work can be done remotely, and I have been mostly working from home for many years, but it turns out that going to an office never and seeing zero people in person is actually too much of a good thing. I miss live music. I miss having a regular level of anxiety about regular anxiety-producing things.

I spent some time this morning walking around my property being irritated at the trees and their cheerful busyness. If I stand still by the willow or the weeping cherry I can watch the leaves and flowers unfurl, and instead of giving me hope, this annoys me. The sweet gum is suddenly popping leaves all over, and most of the maples – autumn blaze, hedge, sugar – are putting out their early pollen-makers. Good for the bees, not so good for me. Only the crimson king maple and I seem to be on the same page. I know it is healthy and that it will leaf out, and I’m sure it’s getting busy somewhere inside its bark, but for right now on the surface it is doing exactly nothing. This is my kind of tree.

For now, I will keep reminding myself that our frost-free date isn’t for five or six more weeks, and maybe I’ll stay hunkered down until it’s time for my annual mid-May ritual of planting way too many tomatoes. Some of us are productive in April, and some of us are still dormant, and that’s ok.

And Then There Were Two

I have a collection of partially written blog posts that I may or may not get around to finishing. It seems that instead of taking notes these days I sometimes start a blog – maybe with a photo, or a title, or a sentence, or a paragraph, on the theory that I will remember later what I wanted to say. There’s one that only has a title – Layers – which I hope was going to be about more than cake, but maybe cake is enough. There’s one called Cat Dog which has two photos of my first dog when she assigned herself to be the parent of the then brand new kitten, Pigwidgeon, but the only sentence in it is about my mother, who was far more cat than dog. Maybe it was going to be about being a dog child raised by a cat mom, though for the first forty or so years of my life I would have said I was a cat person. There’s one called Eggs, which begins with this paragraph: “I’ve been thinking about eggs. Actually I’ve been eating a lot of eggs, and noticing that every time I crack open an egg, I think of my mother. Not in a symbolic, mother-daughter, mysteries of the feminine kind of way, either. In particular, I think of cracking, and then beating, what felt like thousands of eggs, during the Meringue Years.” A few sentences later, it ends in the middle of a word (“Quite possibl” is where I stopped, having used up my day’s quota of not only words but letters, I guess).

Many of my partial posts started with something from my childhood, and those shards of childhood memory are on my mind a lot lately, as are my parents and my two older sisters. I have very few memories of events of any significance from before I was ten, but I can perfectly describe the dented stock pot we used to make both pasta and fudge (not at the same time). I can tell you about the time when the crabs (aka dinner) escaped under the kitchen stove, though the fact of it is all I remember, and not the method of escape or rescue, if “rescue” is a word that can apply when the rescued end up in a pot of boiling water. I can tell you general facts about each person. For example, my father used olive oil as tanning lotion, and we used to have to keep him out of the kitchen while making spaghetti sauce so he wouldn’t sneak in and add so much hot pepper that no one else would be able to eat it, and he often made oblique requests (“A beer would be nice”), and it was next to impossible to tell when he was joking.

As the youngest of three sisters spanning a seven year age difference, I probably have the vaguest memories of the times we were all together. My oldest sister had the most and the clearest memories, partly by virtue of being the oldest, but mostly because she had perfect recall of all names, dates, events, and relationships, plus every fact she ever read or learned. She would always be the person I would ask for birthdates, who was married to whom, how we were related to someone, or when a particular vacation or trip to the circus took place. I’m always interested in the things family members remember differently, or don’t remember at all. She seemed to remember everything, and I don’t think any of us would ever have questioned her. I have a collection of photo albums in my basement from my aunt and my grandmother, and no one to ask who is in them.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and my maternal grandmother when I was in college. My paternal grandfather was not a part of my father’s life, and I was never close to his mother and stepfather, both of whom also died when I was in college or soon after. My uncle died when I was in high school, my mother when I was in my late 30s, and my father and my aunt died within two weeks of each other seven years after that. One day my sisters and I and our three cousins were the kids, and the next day we were the older generation. It’s the normal order of things, but it happened all at once and before any of us had really thought to prepare for that particular fact. I think it’s safe to say the last thing I expected then was that one of us – my oldest sister – would die five years later. I’m still not sure I believe it.

I spoke to my sister – I still want to specify which one, though it’s just the two of us now – yesterday. I used to envy how close my mother and my aunt were as adults. For a lot of years my sisters and I got secondhand information about each other through our parents, which works kind of like social media where you can keep up with someone’s life without actually making an effort to communicate with them. There’s a lot to a sister relationship: the years we lived in the same house, the years we fought, the years we were best friends, the years we didn’t speak, the places our lives connect and the places they don’t at all, the things we know about each other that no one else knows, and the things we will never know about each other. My mother and my aunt got closer after my uncle’s death, and still more after my grandmother’s death. It never really occurred to me that their closeness might in part have been because they were all the family each other had left, the only two people still there to hold on to – or argue about – the memories.

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.

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.

Valentine

I spent yesterday making mini key lime pie layer cakes, not because it was Valentine’s Day but because it is a three day weekend and I wanted lots of time for all the components and construction of these cakes which have been occupying my mind for the last month. Rose spent time installing a new shade for the deck door – one that, unlike the old one, is opaque, so that Scout can’t see the shapes of the cat or the horses through the translucent shade and therefore is less likely to launch himself at the door. Both projects have been in a state of “we’ll get to this soon,” so there was a gift-ish element of clearing the floor and table space that have been housing boxes and tools and ingredients in ready mode for some weeks. But mostly, it was just any old weekend day.

I’d say this is what Valentine’s looks like after more than 25 years, but it’s what Valentine’s has always looked like for us. We used to exchange cards, and sometimes we go out to dinner. Once I received beautiful tropical flowers at my office on February 13th with no card, and when my coworkers asked who they were from I said “I hope they are from Rose!” because it was so unlike us I thought maybe they had been misdelivered.

I met Rose at the farm where she kept her horse. I was there for an evening riding lesson. She was talking to one of the other students in my class by one of the barns, and the friend introduced us by saying “This is Rose – she’s Michael’s sister-in-law.” I was confused by this, since Linda – the woman whose family ran the farm and who taught the lessons – was married to a Michael, and I thought “Wouldn’t it be easier to say ‘Rose is Linda’s sister’?” It turned out there was another Michael, who was taking a husband class – not a class in how to be a husband, I mean, but a riding class for husbands of boarders and students at the farm. I was moderately disappointed to learn that the sister-in-law part happened because Rose was married to this Michael’s brother. So ours was not a love story that started right away.

Our riding instructor decided that a good way for us all to get out to horse shows the next spring was to buddy up with another rider with a horse at the same level so that we could have someone to show with. I remembered that Rose’s mare was, like my mare, somewhere down at the pre-green level of total beginner, and I asked for her phone number. Before I could call her, she drove up one day when I was at the farm. As she got out of her car I said “Just the woman I’ve been looking for!”

We did take our mares to shows together, and over the next three years we talked on the phone (a LOT), and we drove to the Eastern Shore to look at horses with Rose’s sister. We became friends. Friends through my last non-relationship with a guy I wasn’t quite dating, friends through starting a business together, friends through the end of Rose’s marriage, friends through buying more horses, friends through both of us realizing that something more was going on between us.

I can remember with great clarity a lot of individual moments from the whole history of our relationship: some romantic, some contentious, some funny, some heartbreaking. I couldn’t pull out a solid memory of a single Valentine’s Day (except the last time we went out to Valentine’s dinner – we came from two different places and managed to show up wearing matching outfits, right down to the shoes), but this morning I took the trash down the icy driveway, and while I’m writing this, Rose is filling the water troughs. Sometimes the best love language is to do the thing that needs to be done that the other person doesn’t feel like doing.

I don’t want to make too much of a cake metaphor, but I’m going to anyway. This particular cake has a lot of layers, and each one of them is made up of something different. It requires a lot more preparation and a lot more following of someone else’s directions than I care for. Making each component well is as critical as fitting them all together. Taking the time to make sure the whole thing holds together is a final step that’s well worth doing. And in the end, it’s both beautiful and delicious. Well, you get the idea.

Relationships are hard, and complicated. This doesn’t have anything to do with cake; it’s just true. Sometimes we forget to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes we remember to let it slide when each of us is at our absolute worst. After a lot of years, most of the relationship is in the day to day. Sometimes we remind me of the dogs, and the way they reach out with a paw to us or each other, just to make sure we’re still near. One thing I can still say: just the woman I was looking for.

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.