A friend recently reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, which reminded me of one of my favorite guitarists, Tony Rice, and one of my favorite albums of his, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. To share this with my friend I pulled up YouTube to pick a song from that album, and settled on I’m Not Saying.
My sister and I often listened to the double record set Gord’s Gold in high school, and this song was one of our favorites. For quite a few years we borrowed from it when we wrote letters to each other (remember letters?) – one of us would sign “I’m not saying that I love you” and the other would reply in the next letter by signing “I’m not saying that I care if you love me.”
“I love you” is not something we said in our family. It wasn’t until I went to college and heard other people talking to their parents on the phone that I realized that many – perhaps most – people I knew ended phone calls to their parents by saying “I love you.” The Gordon Lightfoot song was both a joke and the closest we came to actually saying the words within our own family.
My grandmother had a dresser drawer filled with drawings we made when visiting her, and letters or cards we wrote when we were young. Almost all were just signed “From” and then our name. Often our whole name, as in “From Tessa Pagones” in penmanship one step away from writing half the letters backwards. My whole family has always talked easily about literature, politics, movies. We have not ever been given to talking about personal things, closely held thoughts and beliefs, or feelings. Especially feelings.
When I started, at age 19, to say “I love you” when getting off the phone with my parents, my father started to begin his conversations with me by picking up the phone and saying “Love me!” It would be another 19 years and my mother would be dead before I heard him say “I love you.”
When my sisters and I we were kids we never had a Christmas tree, and one thing we all agreed on was that as soon as we had our own places, we would have our own Christmas trees. The three of us had varied ideas about what “normal” kid things our kids should get that we did not have: piano lessons, swimming lessons, band or orchestra practice, the chance to fill up on bread at a restaurant if they wanted to, and definitely a Christmas tree. I don’t know, if anyone had asked, that any of us would have said “A house where people say “I love you,” but it was something we all created. Probably in all cases (certainly in mine) with the help of one or more other parents who say it more easily.
My kids say “I love you” easily, even to each other. There are a lot of moments as a parent that make you marvel at your kids for how like you they are, how different from you or each other they are, how they have some talent that seems to have come out of thin air and is unique to them. Hearing my kids say “I love you” to their siblings is something that will always make me feel a little bit of awe.
“Horseshoes are better than circles. Leave space. Always leave space. Horseshoes of friends > Circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.” – Glennon Doyle
It started with a book.
Of course, it started before that. I found the book because of Rose, and I found Rose because of a horse, and I found the horse because… I could keep going backwards. Many if not most of my own stories either started with a book or started with a horse. Since I can’t tell all the origin stories at once, this one starts with a book.
This particular book I picked up with the intent to rifle through it, scoff, and point out what bullshit it was. It was a book called Horses Never Lie by a horseman named Mark Rashid, and I lumped it into all the other so-called natural horsemanship concepts I had no faith in or patience with. I started flipping quickly through the book, glancing at pages in different chapters, and then I flipped more slowly, and then I went back to the beginning and started on page one and pretty much didn’t put it down until I had read the whole thing. Then I read it again.
This book did what good books often do: it changed my life.
It changed my life in ways directly related to the topic of the book. It completely changed my approach to my horses and my horsemanship. This was and is very important to me, and probably even more so to my horses.
It changed my life in ways I would never have imagined, and while I can’t credit the book for all the changes, I can credit it for helping me find the first step. Because of this book I went to a horsemanship clinic. Because of the clinic I heard about a Yahoo group (remember those?). Because of the Yahoo group I got acquainted with a number of women with whom I shared things – an approach towards our horses, a sense of humor, a willingness to keep changing and improving, an interest in sharing the things that mattered to each of us.
The Yahoo group morphed into another Yahoo group, and then another one, as the size and nature of the group shifted, and then Facebook came along. As the years have gone by (17 of them so far), I have met a lot of these women in person, and through them I have met other women either online or in person or both.
Because of these women, I travelled all the way across the country where a woman I had never met in person invited me to spend nearly a week in her house and to ride a horse of hers for four days and if you don’t think that second part is an extraordinary leap of faith I can tell you are not a horse person.
Because of these women, I found my Truth Serum Horse, the horse who firmly but kindly demands every day that my outsides match my insides.
Because of these women, I found a friend to walk with during the year in which both our mothers died from metastatic breast cancer, and again when both our fathers died in the same year seven years later.
Because of these women, I have met people to share music with, and books, and coffee, and tequila, and laughter, and tears. Even when most of our communication is memes and silly photos and voice to text fiascos, there are those times we reach out to each other in our darkest moments to say “I just wanted someone else to know.” We have held each other up through heart tearing grief, we have laughed so hard we have snorted coffee out of our noses from thousands of miles away, we have told each other to put our boots back on and cowgirl up, sometimes all in the same conversation.
Because of these women, I found a friend to share books and grammar jokes and love of words, and this friend introduced me to a writer who had started an online writer’s group.
Because of these women, I rediscovered my writing voice, and I started this blog. The single best thing about sharing my writing, especially the writing I am afraid to share, is the moment that someone else says “Oh, me too.” Which is also the best thing about sharing a journey with these women.
Because of these women, I have work coming out in a book this November: What She Wrote, an anthology of women’s voices, published by Lilith House Press. More to come as we get closer to the release date.
I made my first foray into selling things on eBay this weekend. We’ve managed to amass quite a saddle collection in the past 30 years. Rose and I met at an eventing barn, and we each had a dressage saddle and a jumping saddle at the time. The original saddles didn’t even work on the original horses, but as we added horses and tack we usually found that a saddle worked on someone, so we only rarely sold one. I got rid of a memorably painful dressage saddle (sitting the trot shouldn’t make a person bleed), and Rose sold a cross country saddle that had such a forward knee roll it hit Cookie more or less at the base of her neck. We added all-purpose saddles, breed-specific saddles, and Western saddles to our tackroom.
We are down to three mostly if not entirely retired horses now, and it seemed like a simple decluttering activity to sell saddles we haven’t ridden in for a decade, or in some cases two. I sat down at the computer to figure out eBay. By the time I had listed the third saddle, I had an offer on the first one. By the time I listed the fourth one, a different buyer bought the first one for the asking price. Before the evening was over, two more saddles had sold.
The Arabian-specific all purpose saddle was the first one to go. I didn’t have any saddle-sized boxes, but it is easy to fit an English saddle in a decent sized packing box, so I took a quick trip to Home Depot, padded and packed the saddle, and took it to the UPS store to drop it off on Friday evening.
Saturday we planned to pack up the two Western saddles and send them off. Easier said than done. The large packing box I thought would work turned out to be a couple inches short, with not enough wiggle room to angle the saddle differently. Home Depot’s extra large box may hold more total volume than their large box, but the dimensions are even worse for trying to fit a saddle. The UPS store’s only boxes that were big enough could fit a small horse, never mind a saddle. A saddle repair web site recommended something called a small wardrobe box, which Home Depot’s web site said they had in stock, but another trip to the store found the shelf empty.
By the time I left the house the second time I was barking at Rose over my shoulder while slamming the door behind me. When I came home from the UPS store, where I had heard the cashier tell someone else that a package left with them on Saturday would not go out till Monday anyway, Rose asked me why I was so irritated. I said “Hang on, let me email the buyers to let them know the saddles will ship Monday” so I could at least check “set expectations” off my list and calm down about being in such a hurry.
When I came back in the room and tried to explain myself, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I felt rushed, or the boxes were the wrong size, or that we had different ideas about how to pack the saddles, or any of the logistics. One buyer had asked me what kind of horse I had used the saddle on, and I gave her a list by breed and description of the horses who wore the saddle. Horses who are all either dead or retired now. There’s a lot to let go of in letting go of these saddles.
I’m not a person who gets attached much to stuff. Putting me in charge of decluttering is very effective but a bit of a worry, because I will throw out even the most sentimental of possessions. My aunt used to say that my father would read a letter while tearing it in half from the top down, so that by the time he was done reading he could throw it straight in the trash. I don’t know when I adopted similar behaviors, but it seems I have. On the other hand, when I’m not actively trying to get rid of things, they pile up, and I can look the other way – until I suddenly notice the pile one day and want to put a match to it.
I had thought, looking at all the saddles, that I was looking at a pile that needed to be cleared away, and I wasn’t wrong. I just forgot that I might remember all the first and last and worst and best rides in those saddles. I forgot that it’s been ten years since my heart horse died and I have never gotten over it, or let another horse into my heart the same way. I forgot the relief of the momma of our two best horses when we finally put a Western saddle on her and stopped squeezing the breath out of her with an English girth. I didn’t forget, exactly, but I haven’t thought for years about the miles and the shows and the trails and the lameness and the ribbons and the lessons and the joy.
I don’t mind saying goodbye to the saddles. It’s the horses I mind saying goodbye to. If you had asked me three days ago, I would have said “Of course I said goodbye to them, years ago.” It’s only now I realize that I never will.
In the thirty years we’ve known each other, Rose and I have never fully stopped house hunting. For the first seven years we were together we rented different places while looking for a home to buy, and also while waiting for both of us to be ready to buy a home at the same time. We finally bought a house twenty years ago and we are still in that house, but somehow we had made the habit early on of looking for what might be next and we never stopped looking.
When we first moved here, the kids were between 5th and 10th grades. Our plan then was to stay here until they all graduated from high school, and then move somewhere else like Colorado. Or Arizona. Or maybe North Carolina. Or Vermont. But probably Colorado. The kids all graduated from high school, and we stayed here. Then the kids graduated from college, and we stayed here. Two of the kids have moved to Colorado, and here we still are, but we are also still looking.
Even while we dreamed of other states, we also kept looking at other houses in Maryland – bigger farms, mostly. There are several free local horse publications we received through all our moves – free horse publications rival alumni associations when it comes to tracking people down, and they all contain ads for horse farms for sale.
I often read the real estate ads in the free horse publications for the same reasons I read the horses-for-sale ads – a little bit to see what’s out there and a lot to be entertained. The horse ads bring us “ex racehorse with old ocelots” and “works well in arena in on trails nightmarish at all”. In the second case I presume voice text is to blame for this accidental truth in advertising (and the utter lack of punctuation). In the first case, possibly spell check (ocelots, osselets – potato, potahto), or possibly the ex racehorse did time at a wildlife refuge and made some elderly friends. Real estate ads say things like “Secluded and majestic. Sleep peacefully to the sounds of a genital creek flowing directly across the road.” Honestly I don’t even know where to start with that one.
When our oldest child was looking for his first house, we read the ads with a little more purpose, but we often got distracted by things that were nowhere near his price range or taste. One evening we were all sitting around the living room browsing real estate ads on our phones when Rose sent us a link and then said “Look at the beautiful old trees this one has!” Our son said “Mom. For three million dollars that place better have Oompa Loompas and shit.”
Before we found the house we live in now, we spent those seven years looking at houses in four different counties around where our kids went to school. Mostly we looked at places with enough land that we could keep our horses at home, which meant that in our price range some of them barely had a standing house. For a while we could keep track of the houses by location, but after a while we developed a different kind of taxonomy.
The Cat Pee house was distinct from the Pee house (which smelled like baby pee on one end, dog pee in the middle, and incontinent elder pee on the other end). The Jesus Bacon house smelled entirely like bacon and had crucifixes and/or biblical cross stitch in every room. The Drywall house was the old farm house where the bedrooms were made by loosely affixing single thickness drywall sheets to create walls that seemed likely to blow over if you opened more than one upstairs window at the same time.
It was in the Drywall house that we saw the ad for this house for the second time. We had seen it once in a web search, dubbed it The Castle (for the stone turret), laughed at the price, and moved on. Our realtor brought the listing to the Drywall house, anticipating correctly that we would not actually be interested in that one. The price had dropped steeply – we later found out the owners were trying to get out from under it after a divorce – and it had everything we were looking for in terms of land, location, and a house that looked like it would keep standing up for the foreseeable future.
When we moved in, there was grass and there was house. Two azalea bushes, two dogwood trees, and a big lilac bush made up all of the landscaping. The first year we started picking out and planting trees. The soil here is quite rocky, and digging a hole big enough to plant even a small tree is both exhausting and satisfying. The kind of manual labor I like best is kind that is the farthest from my job, which I do sitting in front of a computer. I like to do tasks that have a visible start and end, where when you are finished you have something tangible to point to. I like tasks that use my body – hammering fencing nails, stacking hay bales, digging holes for trees. One of the most satisfying tasks I have done here, one day when I was in a very bad mood about a job I had at the time, was to pound three ten-foot lengths of half inch rebar into the rocky dirt with a sledgehammer. (I needed them to hook up the electric fence, but if you have the land, the rebar and the sledgehammer, I highly recommend this as a form of therapy.)
Most of the trees we have planted are now taller than the house. The fields are set up for our horses, their needs, and our convenience. We have a list of additional projects we talk about doing. We sometimes divide that list between “Things we will do if we stay” and “Things we will do if we sell.” We have a five year plan that involves moving to Colorado, and another plan that doesn’t involve moving at all.
There are three horses grazing in our fields right now, and five horses buried here. The first one went in the ground the summer we moved in, and the last one two summers ago. One of the things that pulls us up short about our five year plan is moving three older horses more than halfway across the country to a completely different environment. Another one is leaving the underground horses. I’m quite sure they won’t mind, but we will.
We’ve been looking pretty hard at houses in Colorado for the past couple of years. Last year we even found a farm where the horses could live since it’s unlikely we will buy a place there with enough land for horses. Leaving got pretty real after that, which put me into two panics, one about leaving here, and one about having to empty out the house and the barn of all our stuff, which sent me straight to “Let’s rent a dumpster and throw everything we own in it and have someone haul it away and oh my god we have to find the perfect house in Colorado right now.”
We’ve both been vacillating between wanting to stay and wanting to go for a few years. Last month we finally made one decison: to put the search on hold for now. We have enough uncertainty in our lives right now without keeping ourselves on the will we/won’t we fence, trying to decide which way to jump. We’ll spend the rest of this year enjoying our trees, and communing with all eight of our horses. Maybe then we will know what comes next.
But I bet we will keep reading the real estate ads.
I’ve been baking a lot of cake lately. Now, I love cake, but it’s not normally on my list of things to have around the house. My cakes have been getting more complex as I go, not because my cake baking skills are improving, but because that’s what happens when you bake your feelings and your feelings keep getting more complex as the world seems to be disintegrating around you and you hope it can be made anew and better but you aren’t sure how to help make that happen so while you work on that you make cake.
My most recent effort was a ten layer Russian honey cake, which I had never even heard of but the recipe sounded too good not to try. The recipe also contains this note: “The batter will begin to foam and emit a curious odor,” so maybe it also sounded too weird not to try. Making it occupied the better part of an afternoon, though it began the previous day with making dulce de leche. You do this by boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk for several hours, which I’m sure is a terrible idea but I’ve never had the can explode and it really does taste so much better than the pre-made cans they sell in the grocery store. The next preparatory step was making something called burnt honey, which is more like making caramel only with honey instead of sugar. No actual burning involved.
The honey cake itself involves some of the burnt honey, some unburnt honey, lots of eggs, mixing over a hot water bath, and baking very thin layers on many, many sheets of parchment. The icing layers are a mix of the bulk of the burnt honey, the dulce de leche, and a vast quantity of whipped cream. The whole thing is covered with the toasted crumbs of an eleventh layer of the cake, and then it has to sit overnight, and I promise you it is well worth the effort and the wait. It also freezes well and is delicious straight out of the freezer, which is a good thing because a cake with 10 layers of cake and 10 layers of icing and a coating of more cake is really quite a lot for two adults who are sheltering in place in their house during a pandemic.
Prior to the honey cake, I was on a bundt cake kick, after having never made a bundt cake in my life. I did not grow up in a house with advanced (or even intermediate) kitchen tools or pans. The cake my mother most commonly made in my childhood was made in a plain rectangular baking pan. We called it the Bouncy Icing Cake and it came from the Joy of Cooking which most definitely called it something else, though I’ve yet to figure out what. The cake was a yellow cake, and the icing was chocolate, and it had a definite bounce when you tapped it with your finger. I’ve only looked for the recipe out of curiosity, because it wasn’t all that good a cake or icing, but it was fast to make and therefore quite handy when children forgot to say until that morning that they needed to take a cake to school. I think the recipes had names like “lightning cake” and “quick icing,” but so far they remain a mystery lost to time and that particular edition of the Joy of Cooking.
For the bundt cakes I turned to Maida Heatter, author of the best dessert cookbooks I know. In our teen years my sister and I spent many hours making pies and cakes from her Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, struggling to parse instructions like “pull the wax paper toward a narrow end” but always ending up with wonderful results. Our favorite was a pie that Maida introduced by saying “I never know what to say when people tell me, as they often do, that this pie is better than sex.” We first saw this recipe when I was a freshman in high school, and when my sister said “We have to make this pie!” I said “We can’t make it yet – I won’t have anything to compare it to.” My sister said “I can tell you. The pie will probably be better,” but we didn’t make it then. In fact, for several years my sister would start conversations or letters by asking “Can we make the pie yet?” and I would say “No, no we still can’t make the pie.” We did eventually make it, and it was quite delicious. We have made it many times and fed it to many friends and relations, always telling the story of our name for the pie (Better Than Sex Pie, or just Sex Pie, though it has a real name). The voting has trended towards a result of “It depends.” This is never a reflection on the pie.
The first of the Maida Heatter bundt cakes I tried is called East 62nd Street Lemon Cake. It is a type of lemon drizzle cake, where you first bake the very lemony cake and then brush it with a lemon or lime (or in my case, lemon-lime) glaze. It has a texture much like a pound cake, and the tang of the lemon zest in the cake and the lemon and/or lime in the glaze turns it into something sublime and extremely difficult to stop eating.
Because I knew I wanted to make this lemon cake, I had to first buy a bundt pan. I got to ruminate about recipes while I waited for the pan to arrive (remember – pandemic, no retail stores open). For someone who loves kitchen implements – and just about the only type of store I can spend hours in is a kitchen supply store – I don’t really like having one-use tools in my house. The first time Rose was in my kitchen she asked me if I had an ice cream scoop, and I held up a spoon. She also asked me if I had a cheese slicer and I held up a knife, and then she asked if I had a pizza cutter and I held up the same knife. For our first Christmas together after she moved in, I got her an ice scream scoop, a cheese slicer, and a pizza cutter. I have vastly increased my kitchen gadgetry over the years and I especially love tiny things – I have a collection of tiny loaf pans, tiny pie pans, tiny tart tins. I haven’t yet bought tiny bundt pans, but I think I’ve identified the ones I want.
The second Maida Heatter bundt cake, which I selected while waiting for the bundt pan, is called 86-Proof Chocolate Cake. I suppose I should have been forewarned by the name that it would be VERY boozy, but I wasn’t, and it was. Still, it’s cake, it’s chocolate, it’s coffee, and it’s hard to screw up that combination. Having never had it before I can’t say if it’s suppose to be quite as dense as mine turned out, or to have a crunchy outer layer around a more pudding-like (in the British sense, not the American) middle, but I suspect both things are correct. Some of the booze flavor dissipated after a couple of days, it too freezes well, and it goes perfectly with vanilla ice cream.
My next cake will probably be one of my standby easy cakes: blueberry coffee cake, Nantucket cranberry cake, Truly Awful Cake (it’s not, and it’s triple chocolate), or maybe the lemon bundt cake again. It should take us a day or two to get through one of those, and while we snack on that I can plan my next cake adventure. Multi layer cakes appeal to me right now – the layers reflect how my insides feel, and layer cakes manage to be complex and simple at the same time. They also give me a way to occupy my hands for several hours, largely leaving my mind free to work on knottier problems.
Rose and I have been the only people in our house for several months now (all alone with all the cake), but when I bake the kitchen becomes a gathering place, as kitchens will do. There is my mother, of course, who has been dead for fifteen years. My sister who lives 3,000 miles away, and my sister who died last year. My aunt, dead for 8 years. Our kids, who live in different states. My best friend from 7th grade who lives on the other side of the country and who made me a memorable and delicious cake for my 13th birthday. My friend who lives on the other side of an ocean and who I have yet to meet in person but who got me started thinking and writing about cake this weekend. I recently made a playlist (yes, I almost called it a mix tape just then) called Kitchen Dance Party, because I need more dancing in my life right now and because there’s something I like about dancing in the kitchen, as long as it’s not while the cake is rising. I’m far better at virtual parties than actual ones, and I welcome everyone to gather in the kitchen, share the cake, and dance to the music.
I have said before that I want to want to do yoga more than I want to do yoga. I think what I want is the benefit of having done yoga, but I’m not even sure what I mean by that. Mainly that when I do do yoga, I want it to suck less.
What sucks about it? I’m bad at it. Everything hurts – whether or not I’m doing yoga, but more so when I try to twist and stretch and balance. I’m not flexible and I used to be flexible. That’s probably a lot of what’s wrong between me and yoga: the distance between my perception of what it should be and what it actually is for me. The distance between how I see myself doing it and how I actually do it.
When I was a gymnast, I was flexible. I also practiced pretty much all the time that I wasn’t doing anything else. Not formal practice, but just repetition of things I wanted to be able to do that I couldn’t do at first. I wanted to be able to do the splits, so I split as far as I could (and often farther than my pants could) over and over and over, until I could get all the way to the ground.
I took the same approach to walkovers, round-offs, front and back flips, and endless attempts at aerials, though those only clicked for me one magical practice in the gym, never before and never after. I can’t say I would now recommend learning and practicing front flips or back layouts on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home – or any other sidewalk, for that matter – but I was nothing if not determined.
I had a similar approach to riding horses back then. If I decided I wanted to be able to jump up on a horse bareback, I would practice and fail, and practice and fall, and practice and scramble and gracelessly heave myself onto the horse’s back, until I could do it. Or later, when I wanted to get a certain feel in the canter transition – the feel that it didn’t feel like anything, really – I would do it over and over and over and over.
Age and horsemanship wisdom tell me now that drilling a horse is a sure way to sour them, but there’s a world of difference between repetition for the joy of the feel of the thing, and the numbing drilling of a rider with visions of perfect dressage scores dancing in their head.
My riding life bears a striking similarity to my yoga life these days. I feel like it’s something I should want to do more than it’s something I want to do. The things I study and believe about the importance of developing a relationship with the horse rather than doing things to the horse, or making the horse do things, can create a wall that feels insurmountable on some days. I have no interest in competing in any discipline and if asked what my horsemanship goal is, or what I want that relationship between myself and my horse to look like, my answer would be the same as my yoga answer: I want it to suck less.
Intellectually I know this is not a good goal. “Intellectually” is my problem, however. Nothing gets in my way quite like my mind. When I do yoga I have a little too much time and space for my mind, as Anne Lamott says, to think its thinky thoughts. The more I try to clear my mind, the thinkier my thinky thoughts get. The only time they get thinkier is when I’m around my horses trying to do the “right” thing.
There’s a good likelihood that the repetitive practice I used to do is a lot closer to the visions I have of what yoga – or horsemanship – should look like than anything I’m doing now. It would look like doing something. Doing it badly, doing it awkwardly, doing it wrong, doing it laughing, and every once in a while, for a brief shining moment, doing it just the way I picture it.
Limbo is not my favorite place, yet here I am, entering week four.
I have a horse who is sick. REALLY sick. For many of the days of these limbo weeks, I have gone out to his field with the certainty that this will be the day I find him dead in his field, or down in his shed, unable to get up.
There are several blog posts I have started in my head, most of which are not about this horse, but I can’t seem to write, or do much of anything else, right now. Then I thought maybe I would write about this horse, but we are in limbo, and I don’t know how the story will end. How can you write a story when you don’t know the ending? How can you write anything at all, when all you seem to be able to do is stare at the horse?
He has lost at least a quarter of his body weight, if not more. For a minute there, he went from being a fat horse (“when is that gelding due?”) to being a thin horse, and the weight looked good off of him, but it came off too fast, and it came off because he was simply not eating. He is not quite a skeletal horse, but if you saw him in my field, you would probably call the ASPCA. I probably would, if I saw him in your field.
The vet has made several visits, and has run many tests, all of which have been inconclusive. His symptoms add up to… symptoms. They might mean a disease (one of several), or they might just be what they are because he’s not eating. The why of his not eating remains a mystery. It is a mystery to the vet. To the dentist. To the chiropractor/acupuncurist. To the craniosacral healer. To the farrier. To me. If it is not a mystery to the horse, he’s not enlightening the rest of us.
Small things have made him feel a bit brighter. He loves the fact that we have opened his gate so he can wander the lanes between the fields. None of the other horses get to do that. He teases them – and lets them flirt with him – over the fence. His walk is shaky and a bit sideways from weakness, but he covers quite a bit of ground in a day. He recently got to roll in the sand arena and I felt like I had taken a kid to the circus.
Some days he likes to be out with his best buddy, but some days when I open the gates between their two fields, they simply switch fields. Sometimes I find them crammed into one ten by twelve foot run-in shed, close enough that another horse could fit next to them, if they ever entertained the idea of letting another horse into their little world of two.
This is not my first rodeo with a possibly dying horse, but it’s hard in a different way. For one thing, he does not feel in my heart as if he is a dying horse. There have already been more than a few days when it would have made sense to call the vet out to put him down, but he is giving me no indication that it’s time and I have never had an animal not let me know. Whether I have accepted it or not is a different story, but they always say.
For another thing, the shades of so many who have preceded him are surrounding me right now. Not just the animals, but the humans, too. There are the animals about whom, years later, I wonder if there was something I missed or did not try. There are the animals about whom I wonder if I waited too long.
There is my father, stumping up the sidewalk to Starbucks for a coffee and a natter with his neighborhood cronies, shadowing my view of the horse meandering up the hill to visit over the fence with the horses in the next field.
There is my mother, the week she stayed with us the first time she got out of the hospital, and me then, trying to make small, artfully arranged plates of food to tempt her to eat – and me now, creating a cafe tray in a flat rubber pan to give the horse options of things to eat with none touching the others in case the wrong thing causes him to eat nothing at all.
The second – and last – time my mother got out of the hospital, the only thing she wanted was orange sherbet from Le Lion de la Nourriture (known to most of us as the Food Lion). For a time last week, the only thing the horse would eat was carrots. I’m pretty sure a horse can’t subsist on carrots alone, but he was still reasonably comfortable, and he really enjoyed his carrots. If every day might be his last day, I figured, let him eat carrots.
On Sunday night, I was sure we had reached the end of the road. He was no longer even interested in carrots. When I first looked out in the fields Monday morning, I thought he was down – in the exact spot I plan to bury him when the time comes. When I went outside I realized that when he stands in that spot he is over a rise in the hill, and it looks like he is lying down, but he was not.
We spent much of Monday waiting for the vet, and then talking to the vet and having the vet examine the horse. The vet did not quite say “it’s time to euthanize this horse,” but he did raise it as a possibility in the near future. This was not a surprise, or a new idea. And yet. It doesn’t quite feel like time.
The part of Monday not spent waiting for the vet or with the vet, I spent being frantic. Not doing anything, but just feeling like I was coming apart at the seams. Some time after the vet left I realized that during the decade in which we experienced the death of four horses, six cats, one dog, four parents, one dearly beloved aunt, three friends, and our children’s grandmother, we barely had time to mourn before the next death was upon us. We’ve had a respite for almost three years, during which mostly I think we remembered how to breathe, but I’d be hard pressed to say we have recovered. That’s a lot of grief for one horse to bear, when it all comes bursting out at the seams.
On Monday during the vet visit, we talked about what we would be willing to do – treat for everything it might be that is treatable – and what we would not be willing to do – drive him two hours to a horse hospital where they might say “Oh, this is what he’s dying of, isn’t that interesting?” After the vet left, we rounded up the rest of the things we had decided to treat him with. Another shadow crossed my path, reminding me of laying out the many, many pills my father needed to take in his last months, so that he – or his care giver when I could not be there – would not lose track.
Today, for whatever reason, the horse has decided to eat. He has eagerly consumed all of six small meals. Unlike my mother, who could be tempted by half a bagel with cream cheese and lox, plus a few vibrant raspberries and enormous blueberries, he is content with his senior feed. Nutritionally it may be the equivalent to Cheetos, but now is not the time to pick nits about grain quality. He ate a fenugreek flavored treat, which yesterday he would not even look at. He ate a whole handful of baby carrots.
I still don’t know the ending to the story. Tomorrow, I will still walk out to the field with my heart in my mouth if I can’t see him from the house. We may have him for many more years, or we may have him for a matter of days. Either way, he will be with us forever.
Everyone has their own way of preparing for a horsemanship clinic. Some people work their horses like they are getting ready for a show, or a test. Some people read everything they can get their hands on about or by the clinician. Some people shine up every inch of their horse and their tack. Some people plan their outfits. Some people buy new tack, because who doesn’t like an excuse to go the tack store?
Many of us who don’t travel with our horses regularly (and even some who do) spend some time working on – or at least fretting over – the horse trailer. Will my horse get on it this time? Do I need a backup plan to take a different horse if the horse I want to take won’t get on? If I need the clinician to help me work on getting my horse on the trailer, how do I get my horse on the trailer so I can get it to the clinic so the clinician can help me get my horse on the trailer?
Rose and I are going to a clinic soon and we are on the step before the step about the horse and the trailer. If you have ever put together IKEA furniture with your spouse, or hung wallpaper with your spouse, you may know the step I am talking about: hooking up the horse trailer with your spouse.
We have not taken the horses anywhere for a lot of years, and in the interim, we have acquired a new horse trailer. It is much better than the old horse trailer, and I look forward to not coming home with more stories from the horse trailer wars. However, hooking it up is a learning experience. It has led to some of my less proud moments – the kind of moment when you hear yourself saying things like “We really need to work out some less frantic hand signals,” or “No, I CAN’T see the exact middle of the tailgate because I’m DRIVING THE FUCKING TRUCK, not perching on top of the cab!”
And of course after this we want to go get the horses from the field and calmly load them.
One thing I like about clinics is that no matter what I go there to work on, I always wind up learning something I did not plan to learn, or did not even realize I needed to do better. How lucky for me to have the learning start before we even leave our driveway.
We said goodbye to Ruby, our 18 year old truck, this week.
Ruby drove us and two of our horses out to Colorado one summer, 14 years back. We drove 3,200 miles round trip, blew out two tires on the horse trailer and needed new brakes on the truck by the time we got home, but she got us there and back. Still one of the biggest adventures of our lives.
On day 3 of the trip home, after the second trailer tire replacement, in the western Maryland mountains in heavy fog and light rain, we were not sure we were going to make it. One of our main cds that trip (remember cds?) was Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, and one of our two favorite songs on that cd was When It Don’t Come Easy. I don’t know how many times we listened to it that night.
Red lights are flashing on the highway I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight Everywhere the waters getting rough Your best intentions may not be enough I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Ruby moved us to our current home. We were in a rental that we loved and wanted to buy, but the owners did not want to sell. When we found this place, Ruby sat in the parking lot of the title company at settlement, hitched to our horse trailer loaded with all the stuff we didn’t want the movers to move, waiting to take us to our new house, which has now been our home for almost all of those 18 years.
But if you break down I’ll drive out and find you If you forget my love I’ll try to remind you And stay by you when it don’t come easy
She hauled our horses to horse shows, clinics, trail rides, the horse hospital, and best of all, home from the horse hospital. She hauled loads of everything we needed her to haul: hay, wood pellets, horse feed, stone, sand, lumber, boxes and boxes of books from my dad’s apartment after he died.
She carried our family on vacations from the mountains to the ocean.
She was the favorite vehicle of every dog we have had.
She carried our kids from ages 9, 11, and 15 to 27, 29 and 33, and moved them into and out of dorms, apartments, and houses.
I don’t know nothing except change will come Year after year what we do is undone Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
In those 18 years, we have said goodbye to all four of our parents, my favorite aunt, three friends and mentors, six cats, four horses, and one dog.
We’ve had more jobs than I even want to think about.
You’re out there walking down a highway And all of the signs got blown away Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction
During those 18 years Rose and I nearly split up, and then later, got married. In fact, during those 18 years, it went from being unthinkable to possible to law, that we could get married.
Those 18 years have seen our children start and end relationships, become engaged and unengaged, get married. We drove Ruby to our middle child’s wedding, come to think of it.
So many things that I had before That don’t matter to me now Tonight I cry for the love that I’ve lost And the love I’ve never found When the last bird falls And the last siren sounds Someone will say what’s been said before Its only love we were looking for
Ruby was hard on brakes, but she never broke down, refused to start, or left us anywhere. She didn’t have a lot of oomph towing up hills, and her gas mileage ran to gallons per mile, but she went everywhere we asked her to go.
She still has a lot of miles ahead of her, and she has gone to a friend, so it’s almost like she’s staying in the family. But not quite. Our new truck has got everything we want and need, but it doesn’t have 18 years of memories. Farewell, Ruby, and thanks for taking us to where we needed to be.
But if you break down I’ll drive out and find you If you forget my love I’ll try to remind you And stay by you when it don’t come easy
(quoted lyrics by Patty Griffin, When It Don’t Come Easy)