Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Path of Totality

The path of totality was not the middle path, nor, in light of yesterday's traffic, could I say it was the path less taken. It was a well trodden path: practically trampled.

Nonetheless, it was the path of my pilgrimage.

Because there were so many factors beyond my control (primarily the weather, and the availability of a place to camp), I was choosing to take my chances. Would the universe continue to be cruel, as it had been when it contrived to kill my horse by such a ridiculously unlikely affliction?  Had it gotten that fury out of its system?  Was the universe predisposed to be kind again, OR WHAT?

I had my cell phone, GPS, cash, credit cards. I had my son with me, so I wasn't taking too many chances. It was not my intention to put our lives at risk, but to accept the chance of experiencing discomfort and disappointment--which makes me sound so humble and accepting, doesn't it?

Despite my predisposition to be humble and accepting, things got off to a shaky start.

I decided that Josh and I should set up the tent before leaving, so we would be able to set it up in the dark if necessary, and wouldn't be surprised by the absence of some essential ingredient, like poles or stakes.

It was awfully hot.

Josh was in a mood to prank me.

"Are you a white supremacist?"

"What? Why would you ask me that?"

"Are you? Are you a white supremacist?"

"No!  Stop saying that. The neighbors will hear you and what will they think?"

"That you're a white supremacist?"

For the record, I'm not a white supremacist, which Josh knows perfectly well.

Josh failed to pick up his end of the tent while calling me a white supremacist as sweat poured down my brow. As a red-head, I hate sun and heat. Like a vampire, I feel that it's killing me.

"Look at the tent, see what you need to do, and do it. Don't stand there like a punk."

Josh is thirteen, did I mention that?  By late afternoon, it's like he has colic; but instead of screaming and crying with a tummy ache, he gets super obnoxious as the testosterone overrides his otherwise thoughtful brain. It's horrible, but it passes.

It occurred to me that dealing with my son for a thousand miles could turn out to be as challenging as a spiteful universe.  And if I was going to get cranky now about heat, tent flaps, and a 13-year old bent on triggering me,  I was going to be one very miserable pilgrim.

"Josh," I said. "We are going to have to try our best to get along, or this trip is going to be hell for both of us."

"Okay," he said, with what appeared to be genuine compassion.

He hooked the poles onto the tent.

I reminded Josh, because I wanted him to know what he was getting into, that the weather in Missouri was going to be hot; and though we hoped to find a campsite, I hadn't been able to reserve one, so we might have to sleep in the van in a Walmart parking lot.

Also, storms were predicted for Monday, so we might not see the eclipse for all that.

"That's okay," he said.  He suggested that we bring along two icepacks to put under our pillows when camping.

The next morning, I packed the van with a cooler (and two ice packs); a sleeping bag, pillows, and sheets; a down mattress cover for padding; snacks, drinks, water, and sandwiches.

We left at 9 a.m on Sunday, leaving behind five cats, two horses, three dogs (including an elderly poodle named Hank whom I worried could deteriorate in my absence) and my husband.

Illinois is a long, unremittingly boring drive through flat farmlands in bright sunlight. It made my eyes tired. But, as suffering goes, it was perfectly tolerable.

Josh was in a good mood. Over a small blue-tooth speaker, he played tracks from Childish Gambino, Tyler the Creator, and various rappers, some of which he skipped in the middle because they were too embarrasing to listen to in the company of his mother.

The hours stretched out in front of us. We had enough time to listen to all of Josh's music discoveries.  Satisfied at last, he suggested we could listen to my Pandora stations. I chose Glass Animals, and Josh was favorably impressed.  After a while, the songs began to repeat, so I switched to Great Gatsby, which also met with his approval. (Yay!)

While Josh napped, I switched to some very old, very personal music that would not interfere with his sleep: my Joan Armatrading Pandora station.  Good company for driving, sleeping, and thinking about the universe.

It was close to three p.m. when we arrived in St. Louis.

I had told Josh that the St. Louis Arch was a hundred years old, and built for the World's Fair at the turn of the century.  I talked at length about World's Fairs: How the Eiffel Tower was built by Monsieur Eiffel for the Paris World's Fair, and the first ferris wheel was built in Chicago by Mr. Ferris for the Chicago World's Fair....

But I was wrong about the Arch. It had nothing to do with a World's Fair. It was designed in 1947 and its construction was not completed until 1965, long after the World's Fair phenom had ended.

Actually, the history of the arch is just a long bureaucratic struggle...of tension between romantic visionaries and pragmatic paper pushers. It is the story of people getting in the way of creative genius, and of sustained determination over years to insist on bringing into existence something that no one needed, but which would uplift everyone.  Visually, physically, and historically, the arch exists between heaven and earth.  Its story is mainly one of stubborn perseverance.

1965, btw, was the year I was born--not 100 years ago. Not even close.

I had seen the arch from a distance many years before. Up close,  however, it's colossal, soaring, and totally inspiring; easily among the most stunning man-made things I've ever seen.

And though it had nothing to do with a World's Fair, which frequently generated constructions of this ilk, the arch is certainly worthy of a World's Fair, just like the Eiffel Tower.

Saint Louis gave rise to the arch, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, but it was not at all apparent to me why this should be.  A very humble city, Saint Louis has long been struggling economically.

When the daughter of Smith, one of two main champions of the arch, suggested that the millions needed to construct it would be better spent on practical things, Smith was said to have told her that "spiritual things are equally important."

St. Louis still appears to be wanting in practical things, but people come from miles around to see the arch. Had I known how divine this thing was before I set out from Wisconsin, I could have ended my pilgrimage right there and gone home.

We didn't go to the top of the arch, which people do by some unlikely arrangement of elevators. At the bottom, the temperature was 96 degrees; I could imagine to what heights the temperature would soar up there in the armpit of the arch. Maybe, at that altitude, the temperature dropped, but I wasn't taking any chances.

Maybe, I should have insisted we go to the top to get closer to God and to suffer the heat as a proper pilgrim.

But, I didn't. I bought Josh a lemonade for five dollars at the wharf. When he finished it, I rolled the ice cubes around in my hands to cool off as we walked in the sun the wrong way for quite a distance before realizing there was no way across to the city except to go back the way we had come.

We left St. Louis around six o'clock and drove south until seven, the light mellowing and soft.  We weren't going to make it to Mark Twain National Park in the daylight.

I pulled into St. Francois State Park in Bonne Terre, Missouri.

Finding no staff in the office, we wended our way among the campsites. The campsites were loud, clamorous, and crowded.  Children and dogs wandered in and out of the middle of the road. I had to wait several times until someone noticed and retrieved them.

We saw an official in an ATV and asked her if they had any campsites available.

"We're full," she said. "But I suppose you could park in equestrian camping."

We would be delighted.  I filled out the form, handed over cash, and received a card for the dashboard which indicated that we actually had a place to stay that night.

Josh and I drove around for quite a while looking for the equestrian campsites. Finally, it occurred to me that there might be a separate entrance to the park for horse trailers. Sure enough, there was.

We found a large camper parked in a big gravel lot, just as we were told to expect, and that's where I figured we'd spend the night--parked in the gravel, sleeping in the van.  Too bad we couldn't use the tent, but this was better than driving around Missouri half the night, looking a place in the dark.

We saw a road going into the woods. I was curious and drove down it, but the gravel was big and jagged and I wanted to turn back before we blew out a tire. On the other hand, Josh insisted that our actual camping area must be down this road.

Josh was right. At the end of the road, we found a secluded area and several campsites with parking, picnic tables, fire pits, and space for a tent. It was, in brief, heaven.

As the sun set, the woods were raucous with buzzing insects and chirping birds and frogs. I had rarely heard such a loud cacophony in nature. It went on for hours and reminded me of sleeping on planes near the engine, which I didn't mind. I could always sleep on a plane.

We put the tent up without difficulty, having done it once before.  We didn't bother adding the fly; it wasn't supposed to rain. Josh settled into his sleeping bag as though it weren't 86 degrees and 7:30 p.m.

Perspiration dripped from my head to my criss-crossed legs.

"Get the ice packs," said Josh.

"Brilliant idea." I got them. They were fabulous. For the second time that night, Josh saved the day. First, he found our campsite, and then, through excellent use of foresight, he had come up with this life hack: ice packs in our pillows.

I was beyond proud. I was grateful.

Josh and I had breakfast at a local grill down the road. He had waffles as big as his head with strawberries and whipped cream, and a side of hash browns. I had two eggs, hash browns and toast.

It was about ten in the morning when we set out to find Mark Twain National Forest, which I had researched a little bit online.

But somehow, I failed to grasp how enormous this park was, or how exactly it worked.

We drove for miles and miles, through one humble little town after another and through different counties, even, before I realized that we were in fact smack in the middle of Mark Twain National Park, though we had yet to see anything that resembled a park entrance or, for that matter, a park anything.

I guess I do not know what makes a park a park.  Can a park span different counties and encompass a bunch of little towns?  Apparently so.

At noonish, I turned right onto a road used for lumbering. There was no one else there--the other eclipse peepers had probably found the entrance to the park and were gathered by the thousands in some designated area. But Josh and I were alone in the forest on this road going nowhere. I parked the minivan in a shady spot near a clearing with an undisrupted view of the sun.

Josh looked through his special filtered glasses and saw the eclipse had begun.

It moved slowly, like a minute hand, until the moment of totality when it seemed to speed up; totality was so sudden and brief, it was over before we realized it.

Josh quickly lamented that he had somehow missed totality by trying to take its picture with the filter over the lens of his iPod. I had told Josh that he could view totality with his naked eye, but he had heard otherwise from someone else on YouTube, and chose to listen to them, instead.

With any luck, Josh will be 25 for the next solar eclipse.

When I was 25, I was in Hawaii for the 1991 solar eclipse. (I happened to be living there.)  I have no memory of seeing totality; it was cloudy that day. I only remembered that the sky got eerily dark. I did not see the diamond ring effect, which I definitely viewed from Missouri. I found the shimmering ring and dazzling "diamond" more wondrous and relatable than the extremely delicate moment of totality which passes as quickly as consciousness can recognize it.

Josh was sad that he missed seeing totality with his own eyes. That sadness would stay with him for the next few days. But of course, it was also the end of summer, and school was about to begin...

I wondered if technology--his iPod, his X-box, all of it...had caused Josh to miss out on a more immediate and sensory experience of his summer vacation. In addition to totality, what else had he missed seeing with his own eyes?  (A lot, I think.)

I remember feeling sad when I returned home from camp at Josh's age.  The contrast between living outdoors in nature, physically and socially active, compared starkly against afternoons spent  watching TV by myself...Daily life didn't seem much like living, compared to the robust days of summer. But, gradually, as always, I adjusted to my sedentary default life of school and MTV.

We left our clearing in the forest and crawled through stop-and-go traffic to Saint Louis and north to Springfield. Beyond Springfield, around midnight, the universe flashed some fury in our direction.  The sky lit up and a sudden torrent came down with such force that I literally could not see out the window; the windshield wipers could not operate fast enough to clear the rain.

It was frightening; there were thousands of cars on the road, full of people impatient to pick up speed  after crawling along in traffic for hours.

Virtually blinded by the rain, I immediately pulled over onto an adjacent offramp and stopped behind several cars with flashing emergency lights waiting for the rain to slow.

My GPS indicated that there had just been an incident on the road.

The rain abated after a few minutes, and we got back on the highway.

A little while later, the lightning seemed angrier, more jagged, and closer. There were more sudden torrents of blinding rain. Again, I took the first exit off the highway. I parked at a gas station and waited.

"Call Dad," said Josh.

"Why? What's he going to do? We're in Springfield, Missouri."

I was reminded of when Phil and I were trying to retrieve my loose and deranged horse from a field soybeans half a mile from our farm. Phil asked who I could call to come help. I said I would call the vet, but I would have to retrieve the horse myself.

"Have faith in your mom," I told Josh. "I've driven in rain like this plenty of times."

Notably, I drove on the Road to Hana at night in a rain almost as bad as this. If you've never driven that road at night in the rain, picture narrow, two-way roads, hairpin turns, single-car bridges, and blind oceanside cliffs.

The rain slowed, I resumed driving and it didn't menace us again for the rest of the drive home.

I consumed a can of Pringles, 36 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew, hot cocoa, and half a bag of KitKats.

We listened to V-Sauce, and Ted Talks about body shaming, self-acceptance, sexless marriages, extramarital affairs, schizophrenia, mental telepathy, and whether psychology is a sham science or not.

We listened to Trump's scripted speech about his new strategy for Afghanistan.

For the remainder of the trip, I fretted over the gritty texture of my teeth, and how my bite felt off.

I woke up the next morning with the feeling that I had nodded off on the highway and been teleported home.

Yes, the universe had showed me its claws, as well as kindness and glory.

Because I had viewed the trip as a pilgrimage, I had adjusted my attitude to accept whatever came my way, good or bad.  I can honestly say that I embraced the traffic and torrential rain as part and parcel of a pilgrim's progress.

I had time to wonder whether I could sustain this attitude indefinitely. Perhaps, that openness and acceptance of whatever the universe had in store was the perspective I should maintain all the time.

Was it realistic to think that I could apply the mental toughness of a pilgrim to everyday life?

Wouldn't it be smug to think that I was prepared to accept whatever life had up its sleeve?

At best, I could lower my expectations, anticipate disappointment, and feel grateful when things went my way.

But that's not the attitude of a pilgrim.

Life is not a pilgrimage. I do not wake up every morning with the intention of leaving behind my daily routine to expand my awareness of the universe. Not to mention, my relationship with Josh.

Then again, what am I doing now, if not something along those lines?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Going On Pilgrimage

On one episode of Vikings, the King of Wessex sends a small boy and his father on pilgrimage to see the pope.  They will walk 12 miles a day for over 500 days.

And I thought, I need to go on pilgrimage.

Obviously, I can't take that kind of time.  I could take a couple of days.

So, Josh and I are going on pilgrimage to Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, where we hope to see the solar eclipse in totality.

A journey to witness totality definitely sounds like a pilgrimage, don't you think?

But I suspect it may not happen. The forecast calls for stormy weather on Monday, and tomorrow, in Missouri, temperatures will be in the nineties, with plenty of humidity.

However, I am in need of a pilgrimage.  And what makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage?

Is it seeing totality?  Or is it driving for five or six hours with a bad knee and no assurance of a campsite or vacancy in a roadside hotel?

Is it seeing the pope, or setting up camp in the sweltering heat with expectations of storms in the morning?

I have been to many sacred places in my life. I have shared water with ascetics en route to sacred Hindu sites. I have walked among a river of mountain villagers on their way to the ocean for their annual spiritual cleansing. I have hiked to Muktinath. I have visited the Bahai mother temple. I have visited the Vatican. I have heard mass at St. Paul's Cathedral. I have toured Shakespeare's Globe Theater. I have been to Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers fell.

But a true pilgrimage should have all three elements:

1. The intention to go on pilgrimage
2. A lot of effort involved in getting there
3. A goal or destination that is both geographical and spiritual

Most of the sacred Buddhist sites I visited just happened to be part of my journey. They were not my goal or destination. I walked to the ocean with the mountain villagers, but it wasn't my pilgrimage, it was theirs. I knew that Muktinath was a sacred place for Hindus and Buddhists, but to me, it was just a place on the map. The Bahai temple--a tourist destination.

I viewed the Vatican as a tourist destination, but was completely overwhelmed by its spiritual force as I crossed the threshold of St. Peter's and beheld Michelangelo's statue of Mary with Jesus on her lap and in her arms.

Tomorrow, I set out on a pilgrimage with Josh. He doesn't know it's a pilgrimage, so for him it won't really be a pilgrimage; but for me, it will be, because it meets my three criteria.

I know, there's a slim chance of actually seeing the sun in the sky on Monday; but sometimes the weather predicts storms, and the storms arrive late and pass quickly. It is for the universe to determine whether we shall see totality or any part of the eclipse. I accept our odds, and the likelihood of disappointment. (So does Josh--he's very excited to go camping.)

Whether or not I see the eclipse will not detract from the nature of my pilgrimage.

Why do I want to go on pilgrimage?

To leave behind for a while the trappings of my life, along with all its attendant concerns...

Maybe nothing more than that.

I expect I will be uncomfortable. I expect I will not sleep well.  I do not expect to see the eclipse.  I do not expect to have an epiphany.

I do feel the need to go on pilgrimage.

Undoubtedly, I'll report back.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reporting on the Factoids

My son and I attended the "Stand in Solidarity with Charlottesville" event at the Wisconsin capitol  last night, so I was puzzled to read WKOW's take on the event.

"Love and peace was the message Sunday night," wrote David Johnson for WKOW.

The message that I got from several eloquent speakers was that we all need to step outside of our comfort zone and get uncomfortable. We need to challenge and push ourselves and others to do more--much more--to counter the rising tide of racism in America.

Another message reiterated by at least two speakers was to mourn for the dead but to fight like hell for the living.

By comparison, as messages go, "love and peace," while evergreen, sounds like sentimental pablum.  Certainly not a call to action.

The messages I heard were calls to action; and I think it's telling that at least one media outlet chose to water down and add so much artificial sugar to their account of the evening.

The reporter also wrote that "during the rally, a young man started yelling statements that advocated violence. He was quickly drowned out by boos from the crowd."

That's not what happened.

What happened was a young man, who had been introduced as a speaker, said that the police in Charlottesville did not respond adequately to protect the counter-protestors, many of whom were hurt and some of whom were killed.  In response, the young man said, we ought to prepare ourselves as activists to encounter violence at similar events where ideologies (to put it politely) conflict.  Take a class in self-defense, he suggested--especially, women.  Learn a martial art (which is, philosophically, never combative and always defensive). Carry mace.

The mace comment seemed to trigger one man in the audience who then began to shout, "Violence is not the answer!"

The speaker waited for him to stop yelling so he could finish his speech, but the guy wouldn't stop yelling.  He kept shouting "Violence is not the answer!"

I could see the shouting man clearly from where I was standing.  He was angry and determined not to let the young man speak, which angered other people in the audience, who yelled back at the screaming guy, "Let him finish his speech! I want to hear it!"

Someone shouted that the anti-violence guy was behaving violently.

For a moment, tempers flared from several directions and the atmosphere grew tense.

Finally, the man who first started screaming piped down, and the young man rapidly concluded his speech, and stepped back.

So, the article got it totally wrong. The young man was not advocating violence at all; he was expressing concern for the safety of activists. He was saying that the political environment has become volatile and unsafe, so people ought to be prepared to defend themselves if necessary.

Even NPR, yesterday, kept repeating that the whole Charlottesville incident was about a Robert E. Lee statue.

One could just as easily say that the problem was that people were holding a white supremacist rally in Emancipation Park.

The first explanation suggests a deep attachment to white Southern identity, which is really putting lipstick on a pig.

The second explanation says more about why the rally of white supremacists was so extremely inappropriate in the first place.

But sure, let's say that the rally in Charlottesville was about a statue.

And let's say the message at last night's solidarity rally was "love and peace."

And let's say that a young man at last night's rally started screaming and advocating violence.

Oh, why the hell not?

I remember taking a journalism class back in college. Who, what, when, where, why... Journalism was such a slave to facts, back in the day.

Those were good days.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Opposite of a Miracle

My horse died of idiopathic eosinophilic meningoencephalitis.

That's right. You've heard of eosinophilic meningoencephalitis, of course; but have you heard of the idiopathic variation?

You haven't. It doesn't exist.

I exaggerate slightly; one horse had it in 2012, a Dutch warmblood gelding in Vienna, Austria.

He's the only horse in the entire world ever reported to  have had idiopathic eosinophilic meningoencephalitis.

So it exists, but barely.

Belle was only the second horse to ever get it.

Cause unknown.

How can they possibly be sure that this extremely unlikely disease was what she had?

Empirical evidence. Lab tests. Process of elimination. They are sure.

"Idiopathic" means that they could find no evidence that she had contracted EME (eosinophilic meningoencephalitis) in any of the usual ways.  No parasites. No virus. No bacteria. No smoking gun.

It just happened. For the second time. Anywhere. Ever.

Now, you know this speaks to something profound.

I mean, this metaphor, which of course it must be, is a whopping big metaphor.

I just have no fucking idea what it means.

I mean, horses who have been starved and rehabilitated on Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes have never contracted this disease.

Race horses that were overstrained and overmedicated have never contracted this disease.

Neither have any of the most ill-used, abused, and neglected horses in the world ever contracted this disease.  (Needless to say, no well-cared for horses have ever contracted it, either.)

So...Where does that leave us?

I will say this: I worried about everything.  Except this.  This one disease, off all diseases, had escaped my notice.  I never gave it a thought.

I worried about laminitis and colic.  I worried about her left fetlock, which she had injured in January falling on the ice. I worried about thrush, skin infections, hives, abscesses....

I never once worried about eosinophilic meningoencephalitis.  And if I had worried about it, since no one knows what causes it, what point would there be in worrying about it?  What would I do to avoid her getting it?

This disease exists well beyond the reach of ordinary concerns.

So that gets me thinking about karma...

But the meanest cowboys' horses never contracted this disease.

The horses of murderers who buried their victims in their pasture never contracted this disease.

If I am morally culpable--if this is my karma--then I must be the worst person ever, second only to that other poor bastard in  Austria.

And, while it's true, I may be sub-par, I am definitely not the second worst person in the world who owns horses.

The image that has been entering my mind lately is that of Jacob wrestling with the angel. My brain doesn't usually usually evoke Old Testament stories, so, when it does, I pay attention. I looked it up online.

So, Jacob, who not particularly likable, finds himself unexpectedly wrestling with this angel person. It starts in the evening and it goes on all night. The angel (depending, variously: Michael, Jesus, God, or some random angel) manages to dislocate Jacob's hip. But by morning, the angel is over the whole thing and blesses him. Jacob goes on to do great things, but his hip is never the same.

I know what the Urban Dictionary would say...And there may be something to that. But let's put a pin in that and go in a different direction.

I read online that it's about God giving Jacob a taste of reality. Bitter, bitter reality.

Maybe Jacob was always going around thinking his own groovy thoughts and not paying much attention to the business at hand.

Maybe Jacob was arrogant and demanding. Nothing was ever good enough for him.  Maybe he needed to be put in his place.

Ugh! I'm tired of wrestling with the angel.  I want it to be over.  I want to get to the blessing part now.  I don't even want to have to figure out the meaning of this stupid fucking metaphor.

I'm thinking about going to church tomorrow, which galls me, but I am idly curious to know whether it would make the slightest bit of difference.  Maybe it would.  Maybe I need to make amends with my uptight Presbyterian God.

Or could I do it right here?  Could I say right here, right now, that I am humbled by the awesome power that the universe has over my life?

Maybe climate change is going to seem as shocking to most of us as idiopathic eosinophilic meningoencephalitis was to me.

Maybe we'll all be deeply shocked to be the incredibly unlucky generation that witnessed something so unimaginably terrible that few of us dared to imagine it. And we'll find ourselves amazed and kind of pissed that none of our ancestors had to go through this shit.

Of course, they had their own problems.World War I certainly smacked a generation upside the head.  No one had imagined that the world would be at war in entirety--that so many countries would topple like dominoes into living hell.

And then not learn from it, and do it twice.

What I couldn't have imagined or possibly predicted in fact posed the greatest threat.

I'm not saying I'm not comforted; I'm glad that Fire and Tanner, the other two horses in my care, have no chance (or very very close to no chance) of contracting Belle's disease.  Of course, there's still a whole host of other diseases they could get.

Nothing I did or didn't do contributed to Belle's demise. Unless it did.

But consider: every other horse in the world, under ever conceivable set of circumstances, did not contract this disease.

What could I have possibly done that was SO different, SO slightly off, and SO detrimental that no one ever did it before, except that one poor bastard in Vienna?

Practically speaking, I'm off the hook.

I may have an account to settle with my god, but I did take good care of my horse. I should get some few points for that.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Thank You

Tanner misses her a lot.

I have been surprised by how many people have read the post about how Belle died (160-plus).  It makes me think that the death of a horse is a matter of public interest.

Several neighbors have told me that they had enjoyed seeing Belle every day. People who drove past our farm every day got used to seeing the three horses grazing, or rolling in the mud, or dozing in the sun. Neighbors mentioned that they missed seeing Belle when she was laid up in the barn, recovering from her injury. They preferred to see the herd together, all three.

Tanner, Belle, and Fire

As the horses' caregiver, I feel a great responsibility. And though I did not realize it before, I now know that I am accountable to the community for the horses in my care. I don't mind--that's how it should to be.  No horse should disappear from view without a good explanation.

It is an honor to have horses. It is good to discover that they mean something more to other people  than I would have guessed, or noticed.

Simply by virtue of their presence, it seems, horses feed the human spirit. That is what I've learned from what people have told me, from their interest in Belle's story, and from my own personal experience.

It''s a fine human trait that people take pains, literally, to understand the nature of a loss that is mine and perhaps theirs, too; that they wish to mourn for a horse that they may not have known well, but which they had come to care about nonetheless.

There has been a remarkable outpouring of concern and grief for what happened to Belle (and to me and to Phil on that miserable morning).  For all of your good wishes, tears, and concern, my family and I are grateful.  (I would say that my remaining herd is grateful, but even I know that that would be anthropomorphizing.)

Fire makes a grab for my hat.

The Horse that I Grew Up On

It has been a week since Belle died--a week to the day. It still feels physically and emotionally awful--the violence of it, as much as her passing.  I have two other horses, but Belle was the one I grew up on.

I was 44 years old when I bought her.

She was five and unbroken. My friend Jen Williams trained her to be ridden, and I resumed riding lessons with Jen from where I left off at age 14.

Learning how to ride at 44 was a completely different experience from when I was a girl. As a child, I was accustomed to steep learning curves. I knew that I had my whole education ahead of me, and my parents seemed impossibly smart. I was young for my grade, and I looked ahead to the academic year with a sense of dread, as though it would be utterly beyond my grasp.

In middle age, I was no longer accustomed to steep learning curves. I was an experienced professional; I was a wife, mother, and home-owner; I was able to hold my own in conversations with  my parents. I was, in effect, a grownup.

Or so I thought.

I think it's fair to say that I was not an athlete. For one thing, I had never been trained in a sport. I did not grow up when little girls were encouraged to play soccer.  In grade school, only the very bold and athletic girls played sports. They had to be tough and they had to be good, or suffer the slings and arrows of public humiliation...To which I said, at every opportunity, no thank you.

By mid-life, I had long been immersed in professional and amateur pursuits for which I had some aptitude. I was not a mathematician. I was not a scientist. That would have been uphill. No, I had spent my life on what they refer to in Nepal as the Apple Pie Trail.  I was not pointed toward Everest. I meandered through the Annapurna region, which was not easy but quite doable with tea and biscuits every two or three hours.

I brought no aptitude for sports. None. I was like Betsy, our Border Collie, who used to get a hurt look in her eyes when we bounced a biscuit off her face--not like our Basset Lab, who caught and ate the biscuit without questioning our motives.

At 44, learning how to ride was profoundly--profoundly--humbling. I knew how to post to a trot, but I could not remember how to bridle or saddle up a horse (not because I didn't do it as a kid, but because I was transitioning from English to Western tack). I did not know how to tie a quick-release knot, and had difficulty learning it; Jen had to show me a dozen times before I could do it myself.

I made the humiliating discovery that I was slow.

Take a trained or natural athlete, put them on a horse, and what you have is someone who is balanced in the saddle, whose riding position is close to perfect, and who will adjust their bodies to the horse's movement and rhythm. They will quickly learn to post to the trot and sit to the canter. They will quickly learn how to handle the reins properly.  They will learn because they already have good mind-body synergy.  They are like the quick-catching Basset, not the Border Collie who needs to understand the theory of biscuit tossing before she can grasp the concept of catching a biscuit in her mouth.

So, that was me as an adult learning to ride: Ponderously, if not stupidly slow to learn how to tie a quick-release knot; with no feel for the reins being connected to the bit in my horse's mouth; with no feel for the position of any part of my body in space, or relative to my horse; no sense of the cause and effect of my gestures; no sense of balance at all.

And then there was Belle, who, on the face of it, was all wrong for me. I should have had what Mark Twain referred to as "a genuine Mexican plug," a horse as slow and dull as I was.

But instead, I had Belle: a young, green, fast, spitfire.  Belle was athletic, but inexperienced.  For her brief period of training, she was ridden by Jen exclusively--a sensitive and balanced rider.

After that, she had to put up with me, riding her like a sack of potatoes.

I made all of the mistakes: I fumbled with the reins and jerked on her pretty face.

I rode passively, the way a novice rides a seasoned trail horse, because that was all I knew or understood of riding.

After riding four or five times a week for an entire year with a Western saddle, I bought a smaller and leaner English saddle like the ones I had used at summer  camp. My memories of riding as a girl were in the English saddle, or riding bareback on wooded trails. It had all been so joyful and easy.

Imagine my surprise when I rode with the English saddle for the first time as an adult and felt like I was going to fall off.  I was too unbalanced for the smaller saddle--a shocking disappointment. But I continued to use it, and eventually, my balance improved.

In April of 2011, I didn't realize that Belle had a sore back. We were walking a clover pattern in the arena when she stopped and wouldn't move forward. I felt a sinking feeling in my seat, and then Belle flung me, like a lawn dart, over her head.

I landed in the sand on my hands and knees, six or eight feet in front of my horse. My cell phone flew out of my pocket and landed next to my pinky finger, which was jutting out weirdly at a right angle to my hand.

After recovering from surgery (to my hand), I approached riding differently. My confidence, which had never been high (but still inflated), was now at an all-time low.

Since I took a cerebral approach to riding, what else could I do?  I bought a book.  A book by Clinton Anderson for people like me who had been bucked off and needed to build up their self-confidence and win the respect of their horses.

Most of the book involved working with your horse from the ground. I won't bore you with the details. I spent that summer studying it as if my life depended on it (which I felt it did). Belle and I started at the beginning and mastered every single exercise straight through to the end.

In the fall, I resumed lessons with Jen. Because I had clocked so many hours on my own with Belle both from the ground and under saddle, I was finally beginning to develop feel: feel for the connection between the reins and Belle's mouth, feel for the movement of her head and neck at different gaits; feel for the call-and-response affect of riding cues; and feel for my own mind-body connection.

I was no longer a brain in a jar shouting orders to a distant avatar. I was becoming physically and mentally integrated, sensate, in tune with my horse.

Belle was hot, for a Quarter Horse. That means she was sensitive, intelligent, fast, and high-strung. She was the kind of horse that needed a confident and competent rider. A nervous rider made her nervous and spooky. A frightened rider made her defiant--she didn't want anything to do with a frightened rider.

If we were ever going to venture beyond the arena and round-pen--if we were ever going to go on a trail ride, say--I had to learn how to be brave.

On one of our early trail rides, Hobbes, Jen's Border Collie, flushed out a rafter/gang/group of wild turkeys, and Belle, frightened, jumped up and down, kicking and bucking.  I was in the Western saddle, and I stayed on by holding the horn with one hand while executing a one-rein stop with the other, which resulted in Belle doing a jig in tight circles.

Jen told me to raise the rein higher.  I did, and it worked; Belle stopped.  I was shaken, but still in the saddle.

The early trail rides were tough. I was only too eager to return to the barn, alive.  But, over time, with experience, Belle and I steadily improved.

One of my favorite memories was when we were riding with a small group of friends at a big beautiful park, and we encountered a herd of cows. Belle had never seen cows before.  My first thought was, Oh, shit. 

But, I said to Belle out loud, "It's okay, Belle. Nothing to worry about. They're only cows."

I could feel her relax. I could feel her exhale, resigned to courage. Everything's going to be okay.

For the first time, I had managed to do what good riders have always done for their horses--horses whose survival instincts tells them to be ever-cautious and fearful: I had given her courage.  I had chosen to focus on the fact that cows are cows, instead of focusing on the likelihood of Belle flipping out at the sight of them and possibly hurting me.  I had been brave.  It was a proud moment.

And so, despite my being, like my horse, high strung and nervous,  I learned how to calm myself so that Belle could also be calm.

I learned to think straight in frightening moments when before I would have panicked and been unable to think.

I learned that courage inspires courage, and fear inspires fear.

Riding also forced me to recognize that I was indecisive. A carry-over from passive riding, whether to go left or right at the wall became a last-minute decision that forced Belle to turn hard, twisting her body instead of rounding through the arc.  Right or left. There's no wrong answer. It was simply a problem of indecisiveness, a defect in myself I hadn't even known was there.

Leading, instead of passivity.  Being brave, instead of nervous and fearful.  Making my horse put her trust in me, instead of the other way around. Developing a mind-body connection, as well as feel for my horse's body and motion.  Practicing diligence instead of carelessness.  These are the things that Belle taught me--with a lot of help from our trainer, Jen, and a book by Clinton Anderson.

At my age now, 51, seven years doesn't seem like a long time, but it is the equivalent of both high school and college, and it has certainly been an education.

I got Belle when I was 44. She was the horse that I grew up on.