The inevitability of suffering is the connector between us all. It is the great leveler, and it is the ground of compassion. Our common human experience of the struggle back to balance compels us to help one another, to try to understand. It calls us to volunteer, to give, and to ease the way for others in any way possible. This is the remarkably beautiful face of Kwan Yin, the bodhisatva of compassion, revealing herself in a way that is not available when we are contentedly meandering through our lives. Our collective brokenness is so very poignant precisely because the heroic spirit of compassion arises in us as a result of having born the unbearable and of watching those we love do likewise.
From: “Heroic Compassion: Inviting a Lifetime of Challenges, Healing, and Spiritual Awakening”
by ZenDoe Linda Frank
Our work here on earth during a physical incarnation is not in exile, alone, on a planet far away from our spiritual home. Heaven, or Spirit, is intrinsic to our every breath, and closer to us than our own thoughts. We are spirits, each of us, experiencing temporary lives in finite, mortal, fragile human bodies, in a setting where fear, lack, and physical pain govern our behavior and our thoughts as inevitably as they govern our biological imperative to survive.
Again and again, we leave the comfort and beauty of our life in Spirit to undertake the greatest and most heroic challenge imaginable—a human lifetime. Because only in leaving Home for a while and throwing ourselves into the maelstrom of physical life can we fulfill our great purpose, which is to experience, and to learn through that experience. Love is easy when our environment is love. But, the test of our attainment of that state of love lies in our capacity for compassionate activity here, where it is so very difficult. We come here to learn love under the harshest of conditions, to discover it in others and within ourselves.
We are not puppets here, our strings pulled by circumstance or fate. We have free will. We can choose to remain in the dark of illusion, ignorance and fear, waiting for some external force to bring us happiness and change us from the outside in, or we can make a practice of stepping into the light at every opportunity.
Excerpt from Heroic Compassion
I have spoken with so many beautiful, spiritually oriented people who deeply believe there is something profoundly broken within them. These are people who are open-heartedly surging toward the light with all they have, using whatever path feels right to them. They are genuinely kind and sensitive, giving and warm. Yet, these gentle, loving souls carry wounds within their hearts that are tender to the touch despite the scar tissue that has formed around them. It is painfully poignant that those who reach out time and again in compassion, with unconditional love for others who are wounded, can find it so difficult to shine that same ray of light into their own hearts.
For many of us, there is a sense that our spiritual work is intense either because of, or in spite of this feeling of brokenness. Philosophically, we recognize that there is a connection between our darkness and our light, but the chasm between them can sometimes seem hopelessly vast. It only takes a moment to go from mindfulness to madness when something pushes our buttons on a bad day when we’re tired, irritated, or exhausted. Depression, grief, or anxiety can move us without warning or explanation from brilliance into the morass of despair. Where is the light on these occasions? How do we reconcile these polar opposites?
Healing is the compassion-laden process of making room for our brokenness, of letting it be, just as it is, without judgement or exclusion. Doing so enables us to invite both our human nature and our spiritual nature to dance together. This is the beginning of self-love, and the beginning of possibility.
The light of loving compassion is always shining brightly within each of us. We must learn to recognize it, even in the dark.
Photo Credit: CanDaN
There are countless qualities that we seek to master during the course of our lives – patience, endurance, joy, truth, wisdom, dignity – you know each of them intimately. These lessons step forward humbly, disguising themselves as poverty, heartbreak, skin color, illness, political affiliation, disability, and as every other possible aspect of a person’s circumstances.
The disguises, the costumes, are the very things we tend to believe define who someone is. We judge. We criticize. We sort into “us” and “them”.
Every person that you encounter over the course of a lifetime is working with his or her lessons, reaching toward the light the best way they can.
And you? No matter what you are struggling with, no matter what your particular theme is or how it is playing out in your life, remember that all of us are walking the same road.
Ultimately, we undertake our lives, and endure the unendurable, not so that we can be wealthy and famous and carefree, but so that through our experiences we may broaden and deepen our eternal understanding of love, and of the human, active, manifestation of love, which is compassion for each other, and for all beings.
This Great Love is not something that only flows from you to others. It flows through each of us. It is, in fact, who and what we are. No one is excluded, not even you.
There is a beautiful old song that begins:
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Day is a-breaking in my soul
So many of you have written to me since I fell out of the blogosphere, asking how I’m doing and offering support. My sincere thanks to each of you for the kind words and encouragement. It has meant a great deal to me.
Things are changing.
A simpler life is appearing – slowly, carefully, and at the same time like an avalanche. The stress of this life of commuting, of high-pressure work, schedules and extreme busy-ness is still ringing like a hammer, but there is a transformation taking shape, like colors coming together in a kaleidoscope – appearing, falling away, and refocusing again.
The solitude, the alone-ness of finding refuge only in the affection of horses has given way to… yes… a romance, a love, so deep and wide that it is truly unfathomable.
This crusty old heart has abandoned its fortress and is breathing the crisp morning air again, wrapped in the warmth of hope, and feeling alive. In the care of tender hands it has softened and begun to heal, to risk vulnerability, to find itself again. I could ask for no greater miracle.
Things are changing, and changing in a big way. I’m ready.
The phone rang this morning somewhere between measuring out pills for the dog and dressing Captain’s wound. “RED ALERT!” woooop! woooop! wooop! (The ringtone for my parents is the Star-Trek battle alarm) I turned off the ringer, having learned decades ago that buying myself a few moments to prepare for whatever is about to fall in my lap is well worth the delay.
Message: “They’re coming for your father with the ambulance. We’ll be at St. Alban’s. I’ll probably need an ambulance myself. Just thought you should know.”
Rather than return the call, I phoned the nurse at the retirement home to get the scoop. I asked her to relay to my parents that I’d meet them at the hospital.
I’m quite sure that the color drained out of my face and puddled on the floor. The Sunday of “rest” that I had promised myself was about to become the Sunday of fear. Breathe…
When my father is stressed, his memory becomes very poor and he can become quite mean and belligerent. That’s probably normal at 91, but it certainly brings flashbacks. And she… she loves a good crisis. What if he dies? I’d need to postpone feeling anything at all about that, and rally all the strength in the world to deal with her screaming and carrying on. I’d rather have my skin peeled off.
Breathe…. Breathe from deep in the belly. This is only thinking. I’m still safe, here at the farm. The horses need to be fed. One foot in front of the other to the barn. BE. HERE. NOW. The squeak of a stall door. The smell of hay. The white goo of the antibiotic cream for Captain’s leg. The wound is warm and rough to the touch. “Easy, Darlin’,” I whisper. “I’m right here (and I am) and I won’t hurt you.”
Back in the house, throwing on a blouse and clean jeans, the walls start closing in, and I dash to the window to inhale the summer green. I observe the pounding of my heart in my ears, the light-headedness, the clenched muscles, and consciously relax. Picking up a horse shoe from the table by the window, I feel it’s heaviness, its hardness, its coolness – these things ground me, for a moment.
Shoes? Wallet? Keys? One last sip of coffee, heavily laced with adrenaline and cortisol, and I crawl woodenly into the car. A one hour drive is a long way on twisty back roads, longer still when you’re fighting dizziness and the overwhelming urge to dissociate.
Turn up the radio! Roll down the windows! This helps.
I’m watching all of this, observing it, allowing it. “Don’t run away! Be here, in this moment, with the fear. There are countless people in your position at this very moment. This is the human condition and the great soup of life. You aren’t special.”
As I watch my body screaming out warnings, I send out waves of strength and solidarity to all who are afraid at this moment. And simultaneously, I’m just driving – driving on a country road on a Sunday morning. May all beings know happiness. May all beings be free from suffering. “We can do this.” I say aloud.
Ultimately, it was all rather uneventful. He was released. She behaved herself remarkably well. I drove them home, then I drove home, feeling like I’d been run over by a bus.
Why all the fuss? Well, this is PTSD. Despite one’s best efforts, the mind and nervous system insist that you are in an earlier place and time, and they react and respond accordingly. It’s a little like being stuck in a nightmare from which you cannot awaken (or perhaps a nightmare through which you can awaken). No amount of deep breathing helps, any more than “putting your past behind you”. It’s just what you have to work with.
I have found one tiny crack in the PTSD monster’s armor though – one tiny place for some air to get in: (whispering) I don’t believe in it. The body can spew whatever chemicals it wants to. I’m going to keep breathing. I’ll sit with the terror. I’ll hold its hand. I’ll do whatever it takes, but I do my best to stay present and observe, in compassion, what’s happening rather than buying into the story line and fanning its flames.
Sometimes, I succeed. Sometimes not. I do my best to have compassion for that too, when I can.
It’s suppertime. Time to start the evening routine of pills for the dog and horse care. There’s a summer storm rolling in. Thunder rumbles to the west. The air is thick with heat and rain. “May all beings be free from suffering…
She’s 180 lbs of soft, furry, brindle mastiff love – and she’s very ill. She may die, and she may pull though. I don’t know. About the only thing that I do know, is that I don’t know. That’s a hard place to be, but it offers some stunning and sometimes very painful opportunities to practice living in this moment.
Not quite a week ago, she seemed lethargic. If you know English Mastiffs, you already know that they sleep about 20 hours a day as it is. But, this was different. The light had gone out of her eyes. She was avoiding food. On Sunday (it’s always at night, on the weekend, or a holiday, right?!) she didn’t want to get up. That was frightening. We loaded a terrified and resistant gigantic dog into the car and drove an hour to the nearest emergency vet. Four hours and $750 dollars worth of tests later, we didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her.
On Monday, I took her to her regular vet, and after more testing there was a diagnosis: Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia. Essentially, her body is targeting her red blood cells for destruction. It’s a dreadful disease, requiring massive doses of prednisone, transfusions, and other extravagantly expensive therapies that ultimately can be quite destructive. And, despite the best care in the world, they can crash at any moment and be a memory by the time you get them to the vet. She’s very sick.
I’ve already made my peace with what I can afford, and what I’m willing to try, and what I’m not. I feel very confident about my vet and about the network of specialists, holistic and otherwise. The knowledgeable people who have been down this road already are supporting and informing me. I’m learning as fast as I possibly can.
Not being able to fix something this serious is horrific, and at every turn I find myself struggling against a tsunami of PTSD. The fear, the panic, and the physical strain are utterly incapacitating sometimes. My nervous system seems hell-bent on the idea that I am responsible. Mercifully, my rational side knows better. When the stress becomes overwhelming though, rational doesn’t seem to weigh much. And if all of this isn’t enough, we’ve had torrential rains and tornado threats all week. The barn is full of mud. Having horses in a tornado zone is a nightmare.
But, here we are. Life goes like this sometimes. And death goes like this. Somewhere in the middle of the cyclone of worry, activity, suffering, and being overwhelmed, there is a still place. Maybe it’s like the point exactly in the center of the washing machine on the spin cycle.
In that still, quiet space, there’s only the softness of her fur, the look in her eyes, and the peace that I feel from her.
Even in the midst of the chaos of caring for her while having a full-time job an hour away from home, there are still moments of just driving, just chopping pills in half, just feeding the horses. Most important (for her), there are the moments of just being with her. Late at night, on the air mattress that is now a fixture in the living room, she lies next to me, and I simply listen to the sound of her breath.
I don’t know what will happen, or how, or when. It is my hope that I can be fully present for her, but I don’t know even that. So, there are moments of simply not knowing. That’s ok. In an amazing way, not knowing is the doorway out of our frantic thinking minds, and into moments of grace and peace.
All photographs copyright ZenDoe
Trying to learn to ride a horse at fifty-something is daunting at best. I’m quite sure that I break more easily than I did when I was ten, and the idea of ending up in a body cast isn’t appealing in the slightest. That said, I don’t seem to have any particular fear of falling. So, why do I seize up with anxiety at the very thought of climbing up on Captain’s back?
I never took riding lessons as a child, but I vividly remember the percherons. Molly and Bob were the two working draft horses that belonged to Gordon Shiffter. When they weren’t hitched to a plow, they lived on the steep, rocky side of a mountain that was Gordon’s back yard. His farm and his mountain were tucked away in a little corner of Appalachia called Mutton Hollow (pronounced “holler”), where nobody had indoor plumbing and a dollar was hard to come by.
Gordon had a daughter about my age. Cheryl and I took every possible opportunity to heave ourselves up onto the backs of these tall and massive horses. We’d be barefoot and covered in summer dirt, riding without so much as a halter and rope, let alone a saddle. Long stretches of dirt road wound next to the creek, and we’d meander along on those gentle titans without a care in the world, drinking in the green and giggling over something foolish.
One of those summer days, we somehow ended up at a farm where they trained race horses. There’s a picture in a family album of a horse race that everybody went to. It took place on a wide, dusty back road; just these local guys, racing their horses like their urban counterparts drag racing down Main Street. Well, we ended up at that farm, and the next thing I remember is being perched on the back of a sleek thoroughbred and walking around on the training racetrack. It was glorious!
I was ten – maybe 12 years old, feeling fancy and graceful up there, until one of the boys popped the horse on the rear and whooped. The horse took off like he was running from the devil himself. Faster and faster that horse ran, and I hung on for all I was worth, tears streaming into my ears from the force of the wind. Crouched over that horse’s neck, all I could see was the white whir of the inside rail as the red clay exploded under pounding hooves. Funny thing is, I had no experience of fear at all.
I don’t have any idea how I got that horse slowed down to a walk, but I do remember the cheers from the boys that had gathered around!
Forty years later, I’ve been a horse owner for nearly a decade. I’ve taken in rescues, tended to abscessed hooves, bandaged wounds, fed, cared for, and loved my horses. But none of them have been broke or sound to ride until I found the Captain. Here’s his story if you need to catch up.
Captain is so gentle, so well-trained, so docile and intelligent, that if I’m ever going to learn to ride, he is the horse to do it on. The vet adores him. Sue, the woman who comes out to the farm to coach me says that he’s worth 10 times what I paid for him. I’d have to agree. So, what am I afraid of?
I crawl up onto the mounting block, and insist that he stand still while I mount. So far, so good. I’m relaxed, happy, and comfortable. Sue says it’s about time we leave the round pen and take a walk around the pasture. The anxiety starts rising, and by the time she’s opened the gate, I can feel my legs shaking with fear.
My pasture is very hilly, almost terraced in places. I stay up near the barn where it’s flat, and practice turning in large circles and stopping. Stopping is good. My familiar pasture is suddenly looking like a vast and terrifying down-hill slalom course where I shall surely die. Captain stops and sighs. I think he may have fallen asleep.
Sue marches half way down the hill and shouts, “Ride down here, Hun!” – her long-ago British roots evident in the “Hun”. I breathe. I “relax”. Here we go! Captain inches down the hill, mindful of the shaking sack of human terror on his back. “DON’T LOOK DOWN!” shouts Sue.
We arrive at Sue’s position, then finish the circle and go back up to the barn. “AGAIN!” Round and round we go, and little by little, I’m feeling less anxious. Sue is encouraging, but she keeps saying that I should stop looking down.
Finally, after about five round-trips in each direction, I’ve had enough. I feel like I’ve run a mile while having a massive anxiety attack. I dismount and lead Captain over to the hitching rail on the premise that I need some water. Mostly I just want my legs to stop shaking.
Sue walks up and says, “You really have to stop looking down, Hun. It’s terrifying you!” I stop and think about that for a moment, and I tell her that the strange thing is that I have no fear at all of being that high up or of falling. Hmmm… Then it comes to me that what I’m so afraid of is that I will ask Captain to step somewhere that will cause him to stumble. I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about him!
“It’s a horse,” she says. “He knows how to walk around and not fall down. You let him do his job, and it will make yours a lot easier.”
Horses are great teachers if you take time to listen. My childhood with horses was wondrous. My childhood with parents who demanded that I parent them taught me to be responsible in the extreme for everyone and everything around me. If something goes wrong, it’s ultimately a failing of mine, right? Oh, dear.
I could feel my shoulders dropping slowly down to a more normal position. I’d been wearing them as earrings just moments before. Captain snoozed while I sipped water and contemplated this.
After a while, I loosened the girth, pulled off the saddle and hoisted it onto the rail. When I’d taken off the bridle and eased the bit from his mouth, Captain shook, and instead of wandering off, he raised his head and rested his chin on my shoulder for a moment. It felt like a hug.
As I stepped into the barn on this cool morning, all three horses were still and silent. I was among them, welcomed. They neither turned to greet me nor turned away. They simply accepted my presence as part of their own.
For most of us, the barriers that we erect to keep our ‘self’ safe preclude this kind of openness. We brace for impact at every turn, living in our endless stream of thought, preempting rather than being. Yet, despite our best efforts, the world has a way of grinding against our sense of safety and seldom operates on our terms. What would happen if we were to open to life exactly as it is? What would happen if we were to open to one another in this way?
Here is a wonderful story about one of the most well-know Zen masters of all time, Hakuin Ekaku, (1686-1768). Hakuin had a reputation for being brash, harsh, and flamboyant. He was a brilliant man, whose energy and excellence has inspired countless students of Zen.
A beautiful girl and her parents who owned a food store, lived near the monk, Hakuin. One day, to their horror, this girl’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. They were furious, and demanded to know who the father was. For weeks, she steadfastly refused to confess his name. But, after much harassment, at last she pointed the finger at Hakuin. In a rage, the parents went to the master and confronted him, telling him about their daughter’s condition. “Is that so?” was all he would say.
After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation as a monk. Still, he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and begged for money for everything else that the child needed. A year later, the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl went at once to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”
Few of us would be able to manage this level of welcoming whatever comes! Even in meditation, we want things to be just so. We want. We want peace. We want bliss. We want something nice, something extra, something that will be a beautiful add-on to how we already envision ourselves. This wanting removes us completely from how things are.
The art of meditation is to be a welcoming host to whatever lands on our doorstep – to get our judgemental self completely out of the way, so that how things really are at this moment, can appear fully. Rather than bracing for impact, or struggling to achieve something, the art is to simply welcome.
This isn’t a new experience for any of us. It’s not something alien or a special skill that we have to learn. If you’ve ever had a butterfly land on you, you know the moment of total stillness, of wonder, of incredible gentleness, as you simply let it be a butterfly, just where and as it is.
But life isn’t all butterflies and wonder, and neither is meditation; and meditation isn’t about mentally escaping from difficulties or turning them into butterflies and bliss. What about when we’re in pain – physical, mental or emotional? What about anger? What about that mind that refuses to settle, and races randomly like a freight train?
Welcome this too, with compassion.
These are the experiences of meditation that teach us more than any kind of bliss. Welcoming our sadness, our discomfort, without buying into a story line and fanning its flames, is a lesson in living. To simply remain present, with deep compassion for the human-ness of things not being as we would wish, teaches us.
Sit quietly, with dignity and an open heart. Listen to the sound of the rain outside, or to the hum of the fan. Feel the temperature of the air. Experience the sensation of your own breathing. Welcome each sensation, each thought, each breath, each moment, on its terms. Notice the insubstantial nature of the assessment that the air is too warm or cold, and return to welcoming, gently, moment after moment.
In bliss, boredom, or broken-heartedness, there is no escapism here. Rather, it is the experience of being fully awake and alive, just as you are. It’s not exotic or un-reachable. It’s your birthright.
Photo copyright ZenDoe
At some point in my life, I became a champion of little things. I don’t remember when this happened, which isn’t unusual because I have such a quirky memory. What I do know is that I’ve always been fascinated by the tiny.
Miniscule beads, insects, seeds, just about anything mini is interesting in some way to me. This has been quite a challenge, I might add, because my eyesight is and always has been dreadful.
When I finally decided to buy a really good camera, the first extra I had to have was a macro lens. I’ve photographed countless insects, hummingbird feathers, droplets of water and the like. It’s always a bit of a shock when I look at these pictures on a large computer screen. More than once, I’ve actually squealed with delight to see into their complex and usually invisible worlds.
But, it’s more, much more, than scientific or aesthetic appreciation to me. There’s something about tiny creatures that moves me to want to protect them, to honor them, to defend them. Yeah, I know, they’re just bugs.
I have a bit of a reputation as a defender of creepy-crawlies. My colleagues don’t hesitate to voice their disgust when I pick up wilted earthworms that have had the misfortune to find themselves drowning in a puddle or tediously creeping across a scorching black top. I have to smile though, when these same women pop into my office and ask me sweetly to remove the spider from the bathroom.
There’s something deeply healing for me in each of these gestures of kindness, each rescue of a small creature that otherwise has no advocate. Insects aren’t nearly as galvanizing as whales or elephants.
When I was small, I’m sure that my parents kept me from dangers. It’s what all parents do. But what of the times when it was the parents themselves who presented the danger? To whom could I turn?
Each time I carry a spider outside, a little something in the world is healed. That’s important. And it isn’t a contrived activity, it’s simply how I like to live. It feels right. The balm for the soul is just a bonus.
It happens that I live in the center of the universe for “Brood II Magicicadas”. Cicadas, if you’re not familiar with them, are very large and very loud flying insects with vivid green eyes. A summer night isn’t complete without their raucous, deafening trilling in the trees. They live underground until it’s time for them to shed their old skins, grow wings and fly off into the night to mate. It happens every summer. Children love finding their abandoned brown skin husks attached to tree trunks.
But, the “Magicicadas” are special. The entire brood lives underground for a remarkable seventeen years of root-eating creepy-crawling until the seventeen year cycle is up, then they boil up out of the ground by the tens of thousands, climb trees, molt, and fly away after their wings have hardened. These periodical cicadas are smaller than their perennial cousins and are orange-red as opposed to green.
Their emergence this week has been something to see unless you’re squeamish about bugs. They cover fence posts, drip from your flowers and dangle from the leaves of trees, all in various stages of crawling, molting, emerging, and drying.
After supper last night, just before sunset, I went outside to wish the horses a good evening. They often line up at the fence when they see me coming. Might have something to do with the carrots. I stayed with them a little while, stroking their soft coats and talking with them. It was a quiet, beautiful time of day. The last rays of the sun were breaking through the clouds that had brought heavy rain earlier.
The grass was cool and wet, and the 21 ancient oak trees in my yard stood silently, enjoying the golden warmth of the sun. For a few moments, I remembered to appreciate these old souls and the whisperings of their leaves. I walked gently to one of them, to place a hand on the lichen-covered bark.
There, on the tree trunk, were hundreds of newly emerged cicadas. But, every one of them was deformed. Their wings were missing, or shriveled. They clung to the tree, or marched slowly up the trunk, as is their nature. But, not one of them would ever be able to fly away.
The horizontal rays of orange sun illuminated something on the ground, and I squatted down to be able to see what it was. Hundreds of glistening inch-long wings, delicate and as transparent as spun glass lay in a pile on the moss between the tree’s roots, sparking in the light. As I looked, several more wings fluttered to the ground from high in the branches. It was incredibly beautiful, and I found myself squatting there like a child, feeling simultaneously enchanted and very sad that so many of the cicadas were damaged.
I gathered the wings, picking each one up as carefully as I could so that they wouldn’t tear, and after a last look at the broken cicadas, I slipped quietly into the house and up to my room.
I spread the wings in an arc on the old sewing machine table that is my makeshift altar, and lit a small tea candle. They sparkled like gold leaf.
Whispered to the cicadas: I saw you. I couldn’t save you, but I know that you existed, if only for the briefest moment. I won’t forget. This is the best I can do. Sometimes we’re helpless.
All photographs copyright ZenDoe, 2013
*Note: Just as I finished writing this, the news of the tornado and its devastation in Moore, Oklahoma began to pour in. I thought for a moment of pulling this post, but somehow it seemed right to go ahead and publish it. Sometimes we’re helpless…
This is a stunning time-lapse video of the life cycle of the cicadas.
As I was mucking stalls last night, sweating and heaving soggy, stinking wads of bedding into the wheelbarrow, I caught myself feeling guilty, almost panicked, that I wasn’t getting enough work done. The anxiety swelled, and somewhere between shovel-fulls I actually heard myself say, “I don’t have time for this! I have work to do!” Oh, dear.
I haven’t written in weeks, there are four massive projects on my desk at home and ten times that on my desk at the office. The house is filthy. I need groceries. I’d like to ride. I need to find a moment to meditate… I could get up earlier! Maybe I could adjust to getting up at 5:00 instead of 5:30? No.
That panic, as foolish as it was, was a serious wake-up call. Once again, I had become little more than a work machine – a “human doing”. Even the things that I love to do, photography, riding, meditating, writing, even these things had become tightly scheduled and monitored, lest they take too much time from the work that needed doing.
One of my favorite lines from Sogyal Rinpoche is this:
Western laziness consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues.
How true. And how sad. In my own case, I know precisely the cause of my obsession with doing, and I was delighted to find a very clear article about the nature of this phenomenon. You can read it here if you like.
I googled human being vs human doing, and found dozens of articles and blog posts which provided readers with any number of trite aphorisms and affirmations. I didn’t find any of them potentially life-changing.
This morning, it’s raining. Now, in my book, there’s not much that’s better than a rainy weekend. It’s as though the powers that be have declared a moratorium on yard work and major projects. So, I left a few emails unanswered, picked up my camera, and made my way slowly to the barn to simply sit with the horses for a while.
Although they’re at liberty to go where they like, all three horses were there, just standing. If you haven’t been around horses much, you may not know that they can stand together, simply being, for hours at a time. I turned over a bucket and sat down in the main aisle where they’d gathered.
Gradually, the racing of my thoughts quieted until they were little more than a whisper in the background, like the sound of the slow drizzle on the tin barn roof. The lazy swish of a tail, brushing away a fly, stirred the fragrances of rain, hay, manure, and damp horse. The sound of chewing. Captain turned slowly and walked the few steps to where I sat. He frisked me for cookies with his soft nose. Sitting still, simply breathing with him, I inhaled and exhaled every nuance of his movements.
I sat while the horses stood. Nothing to do, no deadlines, no pressure. Horses have no need whatsoever for distraction. Just being is enough. What wonderful teachers they are.
It has been a long time since I’ve had a community of people to practice meditation with. That’s alright. For the now, I know where to go when I need to remind myself that just to be is enough.
Walking back to the house, the rain was cool on my face. It decorated every leaf and flower with diamond droplets.
Photograph copyright ZenDoe, 2013
Alarm shatters sleep long before dawn
helter skelter fumbling for shower and what to wear
pulling on a sock and email between sips of coffee
cat food dog food fish food horse food me food
almost done check the dog water, refill
oh, forgot dog pills get cheese
need milk, need cat food…
Grab keys, turn off lights
pat dogs, pat cat, say good-bye
out the back door down steps to walkway
Spring’s silent voice whispers in hues of green. The sun hasn’t risen above last night’s clouds yet, quiet green, still green, lush and damp. Every blade of grass, every pine needle, each new leaf holds droplets of rain in perfect poise between heaven and earth. Even the birds are silent in the softness of the slow-motion cool.
At the fence, three horses, breathing the subtle music of morning, unhurried. The languid swoosh of a tail, a brush-stroke calligraphy of movement.
Stay one more moment, disappearing into the fragrance of earth heaving forth life. Let it go. Car keys jingle.
Raindrop on Pine Needle ~ Photo ©ZenDoe
This afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak to a very wonderful group of women. I had no inkling that it was I who would be spoken to.
It was a work thing. I was to go and give a lunch-time talk about our organization to a group of elderly ladies at the Jewish Community Center in the city where I work. I had stressed about what I was going to wear. I’d been nervous in the car on the way there. The director of the program had said that there would be about 60 ladies present, ranging in age from 60 to 93.
When I arrived, the women were finishing their ice cream, and chatting amongst themselves at tables. I said hello to this one and that one, all with my professional face on, glowing and smiling. I’m pretty good at putting up the polite societal barriers, draping myself in the persona of my profession. I was oh-so-charming.
The director of the program was wearing a blood-red blouse, fierce glasses, and had jet-black hair. She led me to the lectern, which was designed for a man twice my height. I felt conspicuous. I had worn black sneakers.
One of the ladies came forward to introduce me. The others slowly finished their desserts and then drifted forward to their chairs by the lectern, on canes and walkers, slender hands steadying themselves on the backs of metal seats. As all of this was very slowly happening, the woman who would introduce me silently read my bio, a little nothing that I had self-consciously cobbled together earlier this morning. She looked up at me and said, nodding, “You, are a very special lady.” I smiled, looked down, and then we exchanged a glance.
That glance… Her eyes pierced though the polished persona in an instant, leaving me vulnerable and clumsy. She, she was indescribably beautiful. A tiny little thing, not more than five feet tall, with lovely coiffed hair and translucent porcelain skin. Her eyes…
Now, I have to tell you something here. When you are raised by a pathologically narcissistic parent, you have never, ever, heard the words “I love you” without suspicion. They are always followed by a demand or a painfully manipulative cruelty. I’ve spent my entire lifetime hiding behind a wall, unable to hear love, unable to trust it. But, I’ll tell you this, I’ve peeped out from my fortress for each of my 52 years whenever I’ve heard a kind voice, hoping… hoping…
This lovely woman slowly walked the three steps to where I was standing, and carefully, gently, reached up to touch my face. “You are a very, very special lady” she said again. She patted my cheek. She patted my arm. She took my hand in hers. I confess, I pretended for a moment that she was my mother, drinking in the feminine kindness that radiated from her, devouring it like a cool draught of water, stolen in the desert.
Then, this graceful, beautiful woman said softly, “I survived the holocaust.”
My tears came hot and insistent behind my eyes. Fighting the urge to kiss her hands though the tears, I said to her, “I will tell my son about you, about having met you. Many of his father’s family did not survive.”
“Do you know what the most important thing is?” she asked, patting my hand, her grey-blue eyes dancing, “I have learned one thing in my life. You tell this to your son. The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.”
My son and his girlfriend came by the office this afternoon. He wanted to borrow a few dollars for some medicine. His allergies are acting up. I told him the story, and passed on the old woman’s words. He stood in my office and wept.
The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.
How deeply poignant, our struggle to “accept”. How painfully overwhelming to wrestle with surges of agonizing grief, the black ocean of shame, the fear of what may come, or the steadfast desire to make things right.
We know beyond any doubt, and from our own experience, that some kind of acceptance would resolve, at least to a degree, the ferocity of the conflict within us. And yet, the imperative to hang on to our idea of how things should be is so strong that it feels as though our very identity will die if we even imagine moving into harmony with our pain.
And, there is a measure of truth in that.
There is courage in the struggle for what is right. There is an uplifting quality to our fervor when we plant the flag of outrage and refuse to move from it. It makes us feel as though the ground beneath our feet has substance, if only temporarily. And, we find it preferable to settle for this illusion of being right, because it gives us a little strength in the face of the thing that we can’t accept. But, the pain is still there.
It is natural, it is our nature, to rise up against that which is wrong, or hurtful, dangerous or frightening. We are compelled to act, and to act courageously. The result is that we can, and do, improve our lives, our world, or even just a tiny portion of it. Though the way is fraught with loss and heartache, we are willing, both alone and collectively, to do what is necessary.
And yet, although it is our nature to take a stand against what is wrong, there are times when we recognize that the battle or the event has come and gone. The damage is done. The world has moved on, but we have not. We continue to fight – to fight the pain, the scars, the woundedness. There are times when we realize that acceptance is called for, but even the idea of acceptance is abhorrent. It seems an affront to our very nature to back down. On what ground would we stand if we were to “accept” the source of our suffering? What would that mean? Who would we be?
The battle or event has come and gone. The damage is done. I can’t go backwards in time and change the myriad conditions that made my mother the person she was. It is not possible to un-do the trauma.
We beg to know why. If there were a reason, it might make sense. In our desperation, we generate reasons – I was bad. I was ugly. I am broken. We know in the depths of our hearts that this is not so. It is our nature, it is the human way, to be able to put something to rest if there is a reason. Human mind loves order, even at the expense of a lie that cripples us.
So, here we are, chasing our tails. We can’t get in, we can’t get out. Around and around we go, in denial, in anger, in pain. We see no way out and no way through. We cry out silently for someone to hear us, to help us. We await the rescue that never comes, and out of the corner of our eye, we see acceptance as the only doorway.
What might that acceptance look like? What if it weren’t as much like “giving up” or capitulating as we imagine it to be? What if acceptance opened our hearts, gave us peace, made us stronger, and gave us back our dignity in such a way that we not only felt whole, but lighter, more spacious and loving? And perhaps most important, what if we could do this in such a way that we get to keep the truth about what happened to us?
Peace does not appear when we push our pain away. It appears when we stand hand in hand with it, in compassion. Peace, real peace, arises when we stop struggling.
And there’s only one trick to it. You must hold your own situation with as much tenderness as you would that of someone you love.
Hold it gently, in hands so kind that you begin to see the courage that you have had all along. Recognize that your fight, your struggle, has been the human experience of rising up to right a wrong. Have respect and compassion for that. Recognize that your inability to make it right, or to find a reason for what happened is also the human experience. It is not your failing. This very brokenness, this uncertainty, is the ground upon which we all stand.
Envision this struggle, this pain that you carry, as the most precious thing in the world – not as something to cling to and identify with, but as the radiant core of our very human-ness. Carry it with a child-like wonder that continuously expands and includes everything with heart-breaking tenderness.
It takes a little bit of practice. Our habit of struggle is very strong. But it erodes remarkably easily. Don’t be deceived by the comfortable familiarity of your pain. It would tell you that you are doomed to be plagued by your anguish for all eternity. We like what is comfortable and familiar, even when it’s killing us.
Peace, real peace, arises when we stop struggling. Peace begins with the love that you already have, and the courage to shine that light on your own heart. Please be gentle.
Photo credit: © studiofascino – http://www.redbubble.com/people/studiofascino
Two apples from Panera, chopped into tiny pieces, tucked into a ziplock bag. Step out through the mudroom with me into the dusk, on this, the first night of spring.
Mind the cat, he’s deaf. Sixteen years old, and he still catches mice. I find the tails and gut-bits on the mudroom floor where he spends his retirement stretched out in the sun. Appreciate the skreeeee-BANG of the screen door behind us. That’s a sound from our collective childhoods, even if our grandparents lived in an apartment. We somehow remember that sound.
The work week and all its craziness follows us only as far as the red tube-steel gate, set into the wood fence that separates the back yard from the pasture. But, before you raise the latch, stop. Feel the breeze. Let it carry the stress and tired and all the thoughts right out of your head. Feel all of that flowing out through your hair, and away. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes for a moment. The week is over. There’s no rush. No hurry. Down shift, so that you can meet the horses humbly, where they are, not as an adjunct to your own story, your own identity.
Breathe. Deep. Taste the extreme green of the sugary new spring grass reaching up toward the sky. Feel the baby-leaf-green of the vines and trees as the spring energy pours through them and into you. Let the sweet smell of horse shit fill you without rejecting or approving. The pulse of the tiny frog songs becomes the beat of your own heart. Be still. Smile… Ahhh, that breeze…
Now, raise the latch on the gate. Do remember to close it behind you.
Don’t worry about the mud from this morning’s downpour. Like all the other things you’d like to push out of your life, all the things you have opinions about, it’s just there, doing its thing, being mud. Enjoy it as though you were five years old. Squish through the mud with me to the barn. The horses are there in the shadow of this evening, quietly chewing hay.
Look! Look how the clouds rest silver and gray against the pinkblue sky, hovering over the neighbor’s greening field. Magnificent! After such a long, cold winter, this – here and now – this is the first moment of spring. Drink it in. The breeze on your face is neither warm nor cool, but perfection itself in its sweetness. Little frogs call out, rhythmically looking for love.
Step into the dim cool of the barn, over the hay-strewn dirt floor. It’s a small, old barn with oak boards rough-hewn decades ago, fading red like the strong cedar poles from right here on the property. Kit, Captain, and Lil’Bits quietly look up as we come into their space. They’re not in stalls, but free to roam the aisle. Kit lumbers over to see if you’ve brought something tasty. We’re tempted to speak, but their silent presence is so strong, so complex and deep, that we know we’d cheapen the moment with the sound of our voices.
Get that baggie of apple pieces out of your pocket. Hold a cool nugget of apple in the flat of your palm and offer it to Kit. She’s alpha here, and it’s appropriate to give her the first bite. Feel her enormous and exquisitely gentle and fuzzy lips grope your palm for the apple. Listen to the crunch and enjoy the sweetness of her breath. Captain nickers loud and low, but doesn’t move from where he’s standing. Careful! He dives hard for treats. Watch your fingers! Lil’ Bits is dainty and gentle, her strong lips whisking back and forth to make sure she’s taken everything you have to offer.
Breathe them in. Breathe in their scent, the damp hay smell. Stand perfectly still while Kit bumps your lips with her massive soft nose, giving you a kiss in exchange for another apple slice. Smell the sweetness of her breath in the tender quiet of this place.
We’re out of apple pieces. Stand quietly here for a moment and just be. Just listen. Let them fill you. Let the darkening evening wash over you. The summer lies before us as though we were ten years old again. And, this, right now, is the first moment of it.
Turn gently, and walk with me back out into the evening. Horses go back to munching hay. You and I watch barn swallow silhouettes dancing over the fields.
The sound of foot-falls heading home.
There’s a bell that hangs from the oak in the pasture. It’s a remnant from another life, another place, hung with great care during the first months of living here. I didn’t know this pasture yet. I didn’t know the intimacy of the hills, the trees, the sandy clay soil that resists the efforts of even the toughest grasses. I didn’t know Jess, or who we would become together. She was simply the horse that came with the property. They didn’t want her anymore, and when I offered a dollar, they were glad. She lies in the red clay beneath this bell.
Steve made it from an empty gas cylinder and suspended a chain inside, with a thick wooden disk for a clapper. It is massively heavy, but the tree doesn’t mind. We move it slightly each year so that the chain doesn’t cut into the great arm that bears the weight from one season to the next.
The sound… how does one describe a sound? In a gentle breeze, its voice is low, open, resonant, and seldom sounds more than once. In the evening, it rises slowly and drifts across the pasture, up to my bedroom, where it melts into the walls and becomes the voice of candle light.
In winter, in the dead black of night when the wind howls and cuts mercilessly, its harsh insistent clanging is the voice of my concern for the horses and other animals who must endure until morning. In summer, when the heat burns the grass to dust and no breath of air stirs, it is silent. Wasps move inside, fizzing their wings against the rust. During apocalyptic summer storms, it sounds the chaos and urgency of trees holding deep in the earth, thrashing leaves and shuddering roots.
This morning, as I stand at the pasture gate under a brilliant blue spring sky, a single note rises warm and welcoming. It flows like silk, heralding warm days, bird songs, the chorus of evening peepers.
The grass is noticeably greener.
All photographs copyright Zen Doe
Photograph by Zen Doe
Spring seems to be on permanent hold this year. The flowers have tried their hardest not to bloom. A few have surrendered to the force of their nature and opened, only to be frozen or crushed by snow. The horses are shedding, the spring birds have arrived, but there’s not a warm day in sight. It seems everyone and everything is waiting.
Waiting. It’s the universal human experience. We wait for the garage to call and say that our car is ready, we wait for our turn at the post office, we wait for the call from the doctor or the vet. We wait. We live in a suspended state, with all of our attention on that thing that we are waiting for. It’s uncomfortable. It feels glacial. It seems that nothing is right until that thing happens or is resolved, and then we can get on with our lives. What an interesting notion!
Because it is so uncomfortable, we go to all kinds of lengths to distract ourselves from the obsession with the issue. When waiting involves a potentially serious outcome, fear can arise with an intensity that can be utterly debilitating. And yet, nothing has happened yet.
Next time you find yourself in the bardo, the purgatory of waiting, take the opportunity to look at it. “What?! No! Why would I want to examine my mind in such an uncomfortable state?! Forget that!”
Waiting is a wonderful teacher. If you are willing to stand hand in hand with your waiting for a few moments, you may find that it’s not quite as much of a monster as it seems. Rather, it’s a potent cue to take a breath and experience what’s really happening in this moment. Notice the steam rising from your coffee cup, the temperature of the air, the feel of your body in your chair. The tension of your muscles. Breathe again. Relax a bit. Just this moment is all there is.
Quick! Get your camera and follow me! Out the back door, your boots half on, through the rustle of last year’s leaves, rain-soaked by this evening’s freak spring thunderstorm. Watch out for the branch there, the one that fell in the snow storm. Shuffle across the almost dark yard with me, and out to the round-pen. Don’t zip your jacket. We don’t have time. The light is changing every second. It’s almost dark.
Captain’s silhouette emerges from the fog that’s pouring in faster than we can walk. He joins us in the round-pen, wet from the rain and snuffling at your pockets. Did you bring a treat? Here, brace your camera on the tube-steel rail, and look… The fog is rolling up from the creek and oozing across the neighbor’s pasture. We’re laughing, you and I, as Captain rests his chin on your shoulder, here in the almost dark. His lips gently explore your camera, your ear, your shoulder, and he sighs, fogging up the view-finder and your glasses as well.
We laugh and push him away, firing the shutter as we do. He laughs in his mischievous horse way, and trots off into the fog. He disappears. Just this… Just now… Could it be any more beautiful?
Quiet… then, slowly at first, the sound of the first peepers, the tiny frog voices of spring. So glad you could be here to enjoy it with me.
All photos copyright Zen Doe
Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Winter is still clinging tightly to the pasture. The icy wind threatens, and despite the sun there are still patches of snow. Yet, almost imperceptibly, spring is being born. There is mud where the snow has been. The grass is subtly greener, spring onions rise in dainty clumps, and tiny weeds don miniscule purple flowers ornaments. The horses are shedding. Even a last-chance snow storm can’t stop the tide of life and awakening that has begun.
I’m a cantankerous old woman; I’m not mean-spirited, just crotchety. I resist things. I like routine. I’ve had enough trauma and upheaval in my life that there’s a soothing quality to sameness. Well, that’s what I tell myself, anyway.
There’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, something I need to do. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just something that my heart and soul keep reaching for, no matter how many times I shut the door on the idea.
Does that sound familiar? What does that slamming door sound like?
I can’t, because…. (insert reason here).
it probably wouldn’t work out
it might be too painful
I wouldn’t really be any good at it
I’m too old, too fat, too….
I drew a line in this sand years ago, and I’m not crossing it now
And here we are, not moving forward, not yielding to the change, the growth that aches to be born, like the inevitable spring. The funny thing is that the longer we cling to our notions of why we “can’t”, the further from view the truth actually gets. For instance, if we say to ourselves for years, “I’m too (fill in the blank) to do this thing.” That starts sounding like truth to us. And not just a truth, the truth – the great mother-of-all truths.
What if we were willing to risk peeling back that tough outer layer of the truth-onion. Are we afraid of what we might see? Probably. But if we have the courage to do it, we’re usually surprised that it was not only effortless, it revealed something interesting.
But, it’s not quite enough. What about that next layer, and the next? The stories we tell ourselves, the protection against risk, against hurt, against exposing ourselves and feeling vulnerable – are they the truth? Probably not. Mine aren’t. Oh, and I’ve got some really juicy material for stories. But, they’re a little old. A little worn out. And it does take so much energy to maintain them.
For me, as the layers of the Great Onion of Truth fall away, what I’m most often left with is, “I drew a line in this sand years ago, and I’m not crossing it now.” But then, I’m cantankerous that way.
What if….? Maybe there’s really nothing stopping me. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to relax my grip a bit, welcome the vulnerability of spring.
When I went out this morning, the daffodils were just as they had been for weeks, tightly waiting buds, braced against the cold. This evening, on the way to feed the horses, I walked past them again. They had opened. A tiny yellow lesson.
All photographs copyright Zen Doe
It’s very strange, not having any photographs of myself from when I was growing up. My mother is in possession of all the family pictures, and I haven’t seen them in what must be 25 years or more.
In my early teens, I discovered photography. I adored taking pictures with my Kodak Instamatic X-15. It had a “Magicube” (ooooh!) and if you know what that is, you’re as old as I am. I took scads of pictures, all black and white, and I remember keeping them in an album. I don’t have it anymore.
So, no pictures. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I have very few memories. We all know the power of a photograph to tell a story, or to prompt a flood of memory. One feels a bit adrift with neither.
A while back, I happened to come across one photograph that I’ve managed to keep with me for almost forty years. I took it in my early teens while watching the draft horse pull at the state fair. I’m so happy that I never glued it into that album.
I don’t know who these people are, but in a way, this old couple has become part of my family, part of my story. They look kind, don’t you think?
All photographs copyright Zen Doe
silver snow-lit night
black crow scribes his epitaph
dragging broken wings
For three days, he held his position under the bird feeder, scrappy enough to scare off the squirrels. Hopping around the yard and cawing like a fish monger, you’d think he was still king. Last night, I watched him leave his post. He made the arduous trek to the front field and disappeared. I’ll remember him.
The rains came yesterday, cold and constant, saturating the already-soaked ground and turning the paddock into a swamp. There are hoof prints a foot deep in spots, where restless horses churned up the earth as they endured the relentless frigid pounding. This morning, they huddle in a soggy clump, already recovering and patiently waiting for the sun. Fog drapes itself around them like silk.
It is so very quiet.
There’s a tree in the center of the back field, still clinging to last year’s leaves. Fog licks the branches in a slow, silent dance. Intimate.
I’m captivated by this tree. It stands completely alone, conspicuous in it’s out-of-season leafy coat. Yet, it’s surrounded by a supportive chorus of conifers, skeletal maples, and oaks. I understand this tree.
I’m terrible at making friends. I never learned how. I remember one day after school, standing in the kitchen and asking mother if I could invite some classmates home after school the next day. Must have been about third grade. Her face scrunched up like she’d smelled something bad, and she said, “Absolutely not. They’ll want something to eat.”
We weren’t poor.
Once, a girl did come home with me. We all walked to school and back, and it was on her way. Mother went to the kitchen, reached onto the shelf and found a can of tomato soup, hissing, “Here, give her this. She’ll never come back.”
There was a girl at church that I liked. She asked me to her birthday party. Mother shook her head and said, “We don’t associate with people like that.”
I was a quick study as a kid. There were no further attempts. Over time, I learned from her that the reason I had no friends was that I was simply too dreadful for anyone to want to be around. Mother did this as routinely and as surgically as a physician treats wounds. I believed it, absorbed it like grass stains into the fabric of my personal truth.
Half a century later, standing in the mud, in the quiet of this morning, I feel a warm breath on my cheek. Captain has come to stand with me in the mist. I grin, and dig into my coat pocket for a chunk of carrot. He’s content. I’m content. I’m learning, slowly, to send the love out in all directions – to the tree, the fog, the horses. Just send out the love that overflows.
It’s a little more difficult to pay attention to the love that comes my way. I tend to deflect it, not to believe in it. But, I have the best teachers around.
“Surrounded by the warmth of friends and family” is an orientation, an experience, that is utterly alien to me. But I’m learning. I’m learning. It’s never too late.
I invite you to pull up an over-turned bucket. Sit a while with me. Let’s watch the fog swim through the back pasture together. Yeah, it’s ok. You can touch the horses, breathe in their steamy scent. They don’t mind. Let’s watch quietly together, until the sun warms us. I’m glad you’re here.
All photographs copyright Zen Doe
The sun took tentative steps from behind February clouds this morning. A winter’s worth of mud conceded, retreated a fraction of an inch, not quite ready to admit the twitchings of little grass roots. Just today, horses play and tease, nibbling the hem of my jacket, back to life after months of bracing against cold.
Step into the barn. Quiet ~ then whooosh of tiny bird wings.
A flurry of curry combs, brushes, hoof picks and hay, then roll in the mud, shake, nicker and trot under a daring baby blue sky.
It’s coming, my lovelies. The breeze smells like a secret, bursting to be told. Until then, drink deeply, the sun on your face.
photos copyright Zen Doe
“Are You Listening” was featured on freshly Pressed!
Get the smelling salts!
*Running about in the pasture, flapping my hands and hyperventilating*
Thank you, WordPress Editors!
Most important, thank YOU, readers. Your encouragement has inspired me.
At the paddock gate, stop to become horse.
The whirlwind of everyday thoughts has no useful place here
Leave grind-mind at the gate,
as you would your shoes outside the door of the temple
Listen! Listen with your fingertips, to the cold of the latch
Hear with your eyes, the beads of night-dew frozen now in splendid prisms.
Listen! Become a great wide door to the heart
Inhale the sound of your boots shuffling
across red clay frozen mud manure and scraps of hay
taste the undulations of hills and trees
dawn murmurings of frost and nascent green, waiting
Listen without commentary
without opinion, without the need to add or take away
listen to the wide sky, and to the slow breathing of the horses
as they come forward, steaming breath,
hearing you, in just this way
I love this Stephen Covey quote:
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
How do we listen, really? Do we listen in order to judge, to dismiss, to find a point of contention? Do we listen only well enough to gauge when a response – a grunt – is called for? Do we listen to gather evidence that we are right and that they are wrong? Do we listen so that we can reply, or one-up the speaker? When the sunrise speaks to us, do we compare it to another, or simply let it fill us?
Each of us yearns to be heard, to be understood. How well, how deeply, do we listen?
To listen deeply is compassion.
Last night, considering these things and how to write about them, I went to the paddock fence. Kit, my black and white spotted draft horse meandered over to greet me. I often talk with the horses about writing. No, I don’t expect answers, but they do tend to put me in a receptive mood.
You see, for the past millenia or two, horses have refined the art of listening far, far beyond the capacity of any human being. They are prey animals, profoundly attuned to the slightest shift in temperature, movement, sound. Their ability to read body language, scent, and the slightest nuance of thought, is what keeps them alive. Horses listen. While we’re busy anthropomorphizing about what they’re thinking, they’re simply paying attention – and responding, one hundred percent.
Kit approached the fence. She raised her gargantuan head as though to kiss me. She gently brushed the hair from the left side of my face, and positioned her monstrous nostril directly over my left ear, covering it. And then, she sighed, long and slow. She withdrew a bit, reached around to the other side of my face, and put her nose next to my right ear. Again, she exhaled, warm and soft, and long.
So tempting to make something – to imagine that she was “saying” something. So easy to create a story where Kit was sending me a particular message. But, that would be adding frost to snow. Perhaps better just to smile my heart wide open and receive the gift.
To listen, really listen, is to risk being changed by what you hear.
My fingers are already burning, flashing white, begging me to go back into the house, out of this bitter, bone-jarring cold. It will be dead dark in half an hour.
The horses crowd to the barn, irritable and hungry, jostling for position and charging at one another. The wind drives nails through our skin. In their stalls, they pace and snort as though winter were a tiger, waiting for them in every dim corner.
The pump is frozen. With my back to the wind, I drizzle tepid water from the heated stock tank over the handle until it reluctantly moves. The tank outside the barn has to be filled by hand. How many trips with the red plastic bucket? Maybe only five tonight. I take great care to keep my gloves dry.
Empty bucket banging against my leg, I turn to make another trip. The field next door is dotted with black cows and there’s a child. I squint into the wind, trying to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing. There’s a child, pushing a pink bicycle across a frozen field, at this hour, and in this frigid miserable wind. I drop the bucket. A gust carries it skittering over the frozen mud to collide with the side of the barn.
He’s about ten years old, all mittens and hat, pushing a girl’s bike up the hill toward my barn, toward me. There’s a clear plastic bag dangling from one mitten. I walk toward the wire fence that separates my pasture from theirs, and wait. The minutes crawl by. I’m cold. I’m impatient. I want to finish feeding. I wait. It’s the least I can do.
Slowly and deliberately he stops near the fence, and works to put the kick-stand down, the bag in his hand swinging with his tedious effort. The kick-stand is stuck. He gently lays the bike down and approaches me, raising the bag up for me to see or to take. I have no earthly idea how to respond. “Hey, Sweetheart,” I say, serving up the warmest southern voice-candy I can manage under the circumstances. “Whatcha got there?” The boy raises the bag up a little more and says timidly, “It’s potatoes.” I’m sure he sees the look on my face. I’m trying so hard to understand all of this. “It’s potatoes. For the horses.”
My mind is as frozen as the water pump. I’m sure I’m staring at him with my mouth hanging open. His heroic journey across the field to do something good is rewarded by a stupid woman with her mouth hanging open, not understanding the plot or her place in it. He’s still holding out the clear plastic bag. There are three small potatoes in the bottom of it. Punctuating my confusion, I can actually read the word POTATOES printed on the plastic. A blast of wind whips my hair into my eyes. I take the bag. “Thank you, Sweetheart. That’s so nice of you.”
I’m ashamed of my mind. I search every corner of it for the right thing to say, for the right response. What the hell is this kid doing? Do people feed potatoes to horses? Is this some country thing that I’m unaware of? I’m f**ing freezing. Did his mother send him over here with these? Has this kid been feeding potatoes to my horses?! I can’t encourage that.
Here’s this kid, and I have no warmth to offer him. None. My experience has never included spontaneous easy kindness to children. So, I manufacture some the best I can. “Baby, thank you… that was so thoughtful of you, but these horses are on a special diet. They can’t eat potatoes.” And I slowly hand the bag back to him. I don’t know what else to do. I’m absolutely impoverished in this moment.
The mitten gently takes the bag. “Yes, Ma’am.” And he moves away, picks up the pink bicycle and begins pushing it into the wind, toward home.
I watch him for a moment, then turn, wooden from cold, back to the barn. I still have to feed. My heart goes the other way, walking with him.
As the horses chew, I peek through the barn door into the dark. He’s almost home, a dot moving across the pasture. I shake my head and turn out the light.
The horses would have known what to do.
In the six months following Jess’s death, I could barely bring myself to go to the barn except to feed and water the other horses. What was once a refuge and an inspiration had become a spot that was too tender to touch. I allowed myself a luxury that I began to realize I’d never experienced – grief.
“It’s just a horse.” Yeah, I know.
But, we lose ourselves in the things (animals, people) we love, and that’s often where we find ourselves as well. Having lost Jess, my first real experience with grief was completely overwhelming, and now, more than half a year later, it still shows up from time to time, poking its long fingers into my heart.
The idea of getting another horse was the furthest thing from my mind until the chilly day in November when I found myself standing in the massive facility of a horse-trader up the road from my place. I’d seen an ad for a jet-black percheron gelding so enormous that he would have easily dwarfed the Budweiser Clydesdales. He was in the neighborhood of 20 hands high, and no doubt weighed a ton or more.
His name was Tiny. Right.
A horse-trader is never a good person to buy a horse from. That’s a fact. This place is no exception to the rule. My stupid heart though, is always on a rescue mission of some sort, and so I gravitate to this place. They reap what they can find at auction for a rock-bottom price, haul them here, talk them up and sell them for triple what they paid. The lame, the old, the wormy and the neglected find themselves here in dark airless stalls that remind me of cheap motel rooms. Each stall bears the marks, the dust, sweat and stench of decades of pass-throughs.
Tiny is at the back of one of the barns. In the stall next to his are more than twenty goats of assorted sizes and shades of mud. A thick man in coveralls wades through the ruckus and dumps feed into their trough. Before he’s finished pouring, the goats clamber up into the trough, trampling each other as they dive for a mouthful of food.
Tiny turns his head to look at me as I fiddle with the latch to his stall. He’s filthy. I feel no connection with him at all. Grief taps me on the shoulder and snorts an “I told you so.” Bastard. I can’t deal with this. Steve is enthusiastic. “Just look at this guy! Man, he’s big!” But I tell him I just don’t think so. Besides, it’s a hell of a time of year to bring home a new horse. For the next five months there will be nothing but mud, days too cold to ride, and the misery of introducing a new horse to the others in freezing rain. No way.
Back out in the glare and chill of the driveway, I start thinking – If I were to ever get another horse, it would have to be one I could ride. Neither Kit nor Little Horse are safe enough for me to even think about riding, and I’m too old to casually break bones in the attempt. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt just to look at the other available horses.
I wander into one of the other barns, where there’s a large indoor sand riding arena. On either side of it are long dark aisles lined with stalls. I wind my way through the mud and poor quality hay, peering into the gloom whenever I see an occupant. Some horses look away, some dash to their gates, and some are lost in their worlds, weaving or asleep.
Over the next hour, I bring at least five of them into the sand ring to get a sense of them. They’re frightened, or too exuberant to be out of their stalls. A beautiful Oldenberg nearly knocks me over. Nope. Nothing for me here.
Steve wants to see Tiny again, and goes to get him. “Ok.” I say. I go outside to clear my head, and when I return, Steve is in the sand ring with a ton of Tiny. He really is a sweet horse. He walks well on the lead, isn’t pushy, and backs willingly – good traits in an animal the size of an ambulance.
As gorgeous, dear and gentle as Tiny is, he is also quite sick. Thick green slime pours from his nose, an indication of the kind of care that he’s getting here. He won’t pick up his titanic feet, and there is so very, very much of him. For once, I manage to say no to an animal that I know I can help. Steve is visibly disappointed. Steve is also out of town most of the time. I don’t need this much horse. Steve walks Tiny out into the driveway and back to his stall in the other barn.
Standing in the wide aisle between a row of stalls and the sand ring, I let myself feel how tired I am. This whole morning has been wasted. Grief nods, knowingly.
With reflexes trained by bad experiences to react NOW when panicked horses are loose, I hear the hoof beats behind me on the concrete floor. Before I can turn around to assess the danger, I feel the horse behind me and a gust of wind that pushes hot against my back. I spin around, already balanced to dodge to the right or left, ready to throw up my hands and lunge forward if I can manage to redirect an escape.
There is no horse. Only the sounds of the birds in the rafters of the sand ring.
And suddenly, with a shuddering inhale, I feel her. I know beyond any question that Jess is here. I also know that I have only seconds with her. I hear my intense whisper, “Jess, find me a good one.” and she is gone.
Steve and the girl who has been helping us are coming back and I crunch across the gravel to meet them. “Do you still have the gelding that you advertised a while back as dead-broke?” She nods, but says he’s down in the back pasture. “Go get him”.
He’s absolutely covered in mud. There’s a thick, hard, yellow plastic auction collar tight around his neck under his jaw. He’s short-backed, about 16 hands, a generic bay – dark brown with black mane and tail. At least I think there’s a mane and tail. There are literally thousands of burrs as big as my thumb snarled into his hair. His tail is a solid mass of burrs. His feet haven’t had attention in months and he’s about to throw a shoe. His eyes are runny. Still, he’s quiet and alert.
I take him into the sand ring and he stays by my side, neither frantic nor fearful. When I walk or run, he matches me step for step with or without the lead rope. My heart is pounding. I saddle him, carefully avoiding the burrs. The girl says, “He’s a retired police horse”. I climb up on his back and I’m not afraid. He’s one of those horses that responds to your thoughts as easily as he responds to the reins. He neck-reins. He side-passes.
“I want him.” I say to Steve, sure of this.
I call him Captain, to honor his service. The trailer backs up to the barn. The woman opens the back and drops the ramp. “You’re going home with me” I tell him. And before I can lead him there, he trots forward and leaps into the trailer. I shake my head with a smile.
It will take hours just to get the burrs out of his mane. I don’t think he’ll mind though.
Late that night, I go out to his paddock in the dark. “Captain, My Captain” I whisper. I hear a low whinny, and the sound of hooves, walking into my heart.
Thank you, Jess.
All of us struggle with our pain to some degree. Our pain contracts us, folding us over to protect the heart.
It feels right, it feels like the natural path, to become defensive, small and hard. Shutting ourselves off from what we believe to be the source of discomfort, we build walls, erect barriers and summon the guards of anger and indignation. We struggle in this posture, mistaking the pain of our own manufactured separateness and contractedness for the residue of a wrong done to us. And there we sit, reciting the mantra of separation and of sadness, hardening it into seemingly immutable fact, as though this will somehow relieve our distress.
Healing is the art of recognizing that nothing is solid, immutable or permanent – either in ourselves or in others. Nothing is ever quite what it seems to be. Compassion is the yielding strength to be like the earth beneath our feet which accepts our tears and our poisons with equal openness. It is the courage to risk the expansiveness of an open heart, recognizing the power of that openness to relieve the suffering of all of us.
To have compassion for others when their suffering is clear to us is natural and easy. To have compassion for one who injures us from the place of their own suffering is a practice. To look past the acts of hurt and ugliness, to see the whole picture of a person’s life and how they have incarcerated themselves behind the bars of their illusions of who they are, is to give them a dignity that opens a space for understanding.
To have compassion for ourselves in this way is perhaps the most difficult work of all.
The word “forgiveness” is laden with expectations, doubts, and “shoulds”. Compassion means opening a crack, letting a little light in, letting some air circulate, and making a space – even a tiny one – for healing to begin.
Jess’s passing left an enormous empty space in the pasture. Not only did Kit and Little Horse grieve in their way, now confused and leaderless, it was also hard on the mare next door.
For more than twenty years, Jess had been over-the-fence neighbors with the two Belgian draft horse mares in the adjacent field. These girls had known and supported one another through harsh, bone-crushing winters and through languid, leafy summers. They had shared flies. The understanding between Jess and the horses on the other side of the fence was deep and quiet, but as intimate as the taut surface of water and the image of the trees reflected there.
Ten years ago, the two retired Belgians had been nearly identical. Massive creatures, they had weighed well over 1800 pounds each. They dwarfed Jess and any other standard horse. But, they were gentle, wise old women, who let the screaming, wiggly children next door climb onto their great wide backs. So many secrets had passed between the three horses over the years, whispered breaths, fragrant with hay.
Gradually, one of these two giants had begun to disappear. Though she continued to graze, she grew gaunt and pitiable. Her sister never left her side, encouraging her day after day to take a few more steps, to eat another mouthful of grass.
I ached for the thin one. On more than one occasion, I called animal control. In this rural part of the state, everyone knows one another, and the control officer informed me that the owner “takes real good care of her animals”. I did everything I could do. Eventually, all I could do was love her.
But, horses have a way of keeping their quiet dignity even in the worst of circumstances, and they have a way of working things out.
One week to the day after Jess left this world, the emaciated Belgian mare lay down in the grass, and did not get up again. Steve trudged the mile or so across the field to the neighbor’s house to let them know that she was down.
I paced. I organized my closet, imagining that the clatter of clothes hangers would insulate me from the sounds that would surely come soon. Still reeling and numb from Jess’s death, I didn’t want to hear the inevitable report from the rifle. When it came, my heart ricocheted into my throat at the exact moment that the remaining mare screamed.
The lone horse spent the next two days searching desperately for her sister. She zig-zagged from one end of the vast pasture to the other, whinnying and calling, her huge body shaking the earth, imploring. This is the horse way.
As agonizing as it was to watch, I was relieved that the sad, thin old girl was finally free of the body that must have caused her incalculable pain. And, I couldn’t help but notice, again and again, that she had lasted only a handful of days after Jess’s death.
In some strange way, Jess’s death had helped the old, thin mare be able to leave this life. Perhaps, in her way, she was able to follow Jess and to find her. And, perhaps the surviving mare, searching the field next door, lifted her voice as much in triumph as in anguish.
Jess was teaching me again, softly, like a whisper in the night. The perfect choreography of heart songs reminding me that Jess had died, not at my hand, but by my side, loved and honored. My fear that I had betrayed her in some way was unfounded. Jess’s death was not tragic. It was as graceful as a candle flame disappearing.
Still, I grieve for her. My heart still calls for her.
I see them, my ancestors
standing silent around me
trees on the mountain
silent shapes in morning fog
gray mist heavy on their leafy shoulders
Reduced to names and dates
birth, and death records ~ like rain and wind
winter passing into summer
Rain and wind and cold
with little fingers and toes
and loved ones buried
in mountain mist, hearts heavy
bleeding worry regret
strong trees surrounding
unmoving knowing… me.
offer shade and rest,
rising digging deep immovable
in West Virginia earth
Two hundred years of wind
whispered through leaves
This voice is not my own alone
I sing your breeze brushed lament
your green melody
older than the loamy grit between our roots
Sometimes, the best you can do is enough. Being strong for someone can be the hardest thing a soul can endure. But, you do your best – for love, for duty, to be of help. You stumble. You make mistakes. Your fear makes little unexpected appearances, cameos, and you pray that you’ll hold fast long enough to see this thing through. You fail in a hundred tiny ways. And yet, in the end, it’s good enough. It makes you honest, though.
Friday, July 6th 2012 was dead in the middle of the most horrific heat wave ever. The whole country had suffered triple digit temperatures for over a week. People were dying. The fists of a sudden cataclysmic storm had pounded out power lines from Ohio to New Jersey to North Carolina. In its wake, the staggering heat, with no power for air conditioning, was too much for some to live through.
It broke my heart that Jess would know this as her last day.
It was over one hundred degrees by nine o’clock this morning when I shuffled the familiar path from the back door to the barn. Crunchy brown wisps of grass clung to the concrete-hard clay beneath my work boots as they found their way through the paddock.
In the shade and relative cool of the barn stood Jess, Kit, and Little Horse, as placid and calm as the heat was heavy. Like ten thousand times before, I stepped into the sweet, hay-smelling aisle, and greeted Jess first. She’s the alpha here, and her presence radiates both authority and a tender gentleness that can be heartbreaking.
Summoning strength, and fighting an instinct to utterly dissociate, I drew a strong image in the mind between us of cool, dew-laden green fields with dancing clouds in a clean blue sky. I said to her, “Today, my love. Today. You’re going home.” I sent her the image, then had to turn away. Had I stayed longer, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the other images from arising. I wanted to touch her, to wrap my arms one more time around her massive neck. I wanted to sob into her mane, my face plastered into the copper strands. I wanted to smell her one more time. Instead, I manufactured a brilliant ball of radiant confidence and joy to uplift her as I walked past her to the tack room door.
Whack-thunk. Squeak of the bolt, and the rattle and jingle of her blue halter, hanging from a nail on the back of the door. Then, the familiar ritual of putting the halter over her nose, buckling the brass fastener under her ear. She lowered her head gracefully, willingly, and I thought, “you… know…”
“Look! Aren’t you beautiful in blue.” I smile, and let her feel my joy. I almost feel it too. Now, she’s ready. I don’t stay. I can’t. I reach out a shaking hand and gently brush a fly from her eye. I turn and leave the barn.
Under the oak in the small pasture just behind the house, Steve is clearing the low branches. The back hoe has to be able to do its work unimpeded. I stop to help. The heat surrounds us and sucks us down like an undertow. But, that’s what we have, and we’ll work with it. There’s something about work that lends a much-needed order and purpose to the hour, as you wait for the vet to arrive.
He’s late. We’ve paced every inch of the driveway. We’ve talked about the tractor. We’ve picked gravel out of the treads of our boots. Finally, the white Ford truck eases up the long drive and crunches to a stop. Dr. Ferguson is a slight man with a kind smile. I don’t remember the names of the interns as we shake hands. A flurry of preparations, medical supplies, a laptop.
I think I’m telling him where to meet us under the tree. He is blessedly quiet and understanding. This can’t be easy for him.
I hear my boots walking to the barn again. The heat leans against me; it’s like slogging through water. Steve has followed me, but doesn’t intrude. I make a mental note to give him credit for that.
I’ve left the blue cotton lead rope near the door, draped over the ladder to the hayloft, knowing that my hands might not be able to find it otherwise. It’s soft and frayed, and so very blue. I walk to Jess and say, “Let’s go for a walk, Sweetheart. Let’s go for a short walk into the shade of your tree.” Click. The blue lead rope, now fastened to her halter, rests like liquid in my hand. She’s so calm. She trusts me. Her breathing is peaceful. She moves forward, her mangled knee taking proud horse steps into the sunlight.
I lead her out of the barn and across the scorched ground to the oak tree where we’ve spent so many hours. Dr. Ferguson is there. Kit and Little Horse have come along on invisible threads. Someone says, “We have a parade.” They stand like sentinels with Jess, close, not wanting to leave. But, the vet says they have to go. Suddenly, and without so much as a look from anyone, they run thundering back to the barn.
I asked for her to be sedated first. The vet says it might be a longer, harder passing, but I am, for what may be the first time in my life, adamant. He softly and kindly explains what will happen, what might be disturbing, and how it will be. I hear only the horsefly tormenting her. I protectively brush it away. “Yes,” I say. “Go ahead”.
I am afraid. I’m horrified that I am betraying her – that she will know, in this last instant what I have done, even as she trusted me with her life. But, I rally for that final moment and slow my breathing, sending her waves of peace and joy.
I cup my hand behind her eye, so that she won’t see the vial of iridescent fluid, so that she won’t see the size of the needle, or the vet approaching her exquisite neck. She flinches, and I tell her it’s just a shot, like all the others she’s had. She believes me.
The sedative slowly lowers her head and slows her breathing. I have her face in my hands and I pour every loving thought that my heart can manage into the air between us. I’m dimly horrified by the color of the fluid in the gigantic syringe that the vet is emptying into her. Empty, he throws it aside and replaces it with another. I can hear the flow of the substance through the needle. An intern makes the discarded one disappear.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here. I’m right here.” The ancient chorus that has been sung by the soul of everyone who has held a beloved one in this final moment.
And then, she simply and gracefully… crumples, and is gone. I kneel beside her, and through the fog of raw presence, recognize that there are five of us, with our hands on her. A benediction.
The other horses never come to stand by her. Unusual. In my heart, I know that she had spoken with them the night before. Her last act of grace as the leader of her tiny herd.
A red clay mound of hot earth, under the oak tree. A blue halter and lead rope, draped over the fence. Her shimmering copper tail, still smelling like summer, bound with a red ribbon, lies in my lap, as I lean against the base of the tree, its reassuringly timeless bark cutting into the sweat on my back. I put my palm to the ground, eyes closed, and whisper, “I love you, Jess.”
She had known. She was sublimely at ease, knowing that she was going home. She had asked me to do this. And, as they say, “It was time”. Small comfort. The words angel of death conjure fearsome images. I’ll see them differently now. Once again, she’s teaching me.
This evening, I sat for a long time in the field with them while they grazed. Just watching, just breathing with them. After a time, it was just Jess and me. I went to the barn to get her mane and tail brush. She followed me. I needed to spend some time just with her. She knew that and followed me into the barn, away from the other girls.
I brushed her beautiful tail. I brushed her mane, again and again, softly, gently, like a little girl would. I was crumbling under the weight of the responsibility of helping her leave this world, and, in the grief and confusion, became very child-like. Perhaps this was the door that my heart needed. I’m absolutely certain that she invited it. What courage she has, in her last hours, to be the one to take me by the hand.
I told her, “I’m sad, Jess. I’m sad because you’re going home tomorrow, and I’ll miss you very much. You’re going home where it’s golden, and you’ll have wings and good strong legs. You’ll be able to run so fast. I wish I could come with you. I’ll miss you so very, very much.” And I brushed her mane as though it were the only thing on earth that needed to be done. I cried – very softly, so as not to upset her. She yawned and yawned again, the equine way of shaking off fear, stress. But, she insisted that I keep brushing.
I got her soft brush and groomed her brilliant, soft, copper sides, and her legs, and her feet – very carefully, with so much tenderness. I said, again and again in my mind, “I love you with all my heart.” and I know she heard me. And as I brushed, this heart of mine opened, and I thought: You are my friend, and I love you, and you are dying. And, I am honored to be here with you, just us girls, taking care of you and loving you, and brushing your hair.
Even though I was sad and crying, she wanted me to stay. And, she wanted a cookie. So, I got two for her. And, I kissed her face, and wished her a good night.
Good night, Jess. I love you.
Horses. They take their time letting you in. Trust is measured in years, not moments. They can be aloof, pissy, and sometimes terrifying in their strength. But, when they open their hearts to you, there is nothing like it on earth. They take up residence in your soul. They whisper directly into your chest, bypassing your defenses. All horses are unicorns.
Jess will only be here for another few weeks. Her left knee is mangled with arthritis, and it’s long past time to let her run free. The hoof is now turned inward almost 45 degrees.
I’ve had the privilege to be her friend and caretaker for 7 of her 23 years. I’ve watched this lame, slow, beautiful grand dame of a copper-colored quarter horse teach 4 other horses how to live here on this land, how to mind their manners and how to get along. Pablo, Sal, Kit, and Little Horse have all learned from her. She has helped me to teach the rescue, Kit, to trust. Most of all, she has taught me. She has been my therapist since the day I came to this farm, though it was years before I would understand that. What patience she has. But, in these final days, she has taken it to a level that words can’t measure.
Although my brain insisted that “training” was the job that needed done, my heart seemed to need more today. I went to the barn and simply stood with them, gently, as they waited through the warmest part of the day, quietly shivering off the perpetual tickle of flies. Becoming a horse myself – breathing in, breathing out. No plans, no thoughts, no time. Just noticing. Just listening. Fly-buzz. A hoof strikes the clay. Kit sighs. Finally, truly, hearing.
Familiar whack-clunk of the bolt on the tack room door, fishing the blue dollar-store hairbrush that I use for tails out of the busted, stained, spider web encrusted supplement bucket. As I love to do, began brushing Jess’s tail. Its long, cool, copper strands are soft as human hair. Jess loves nothing more than a little attention. That, I can do. It’s an easy job.
I brushed and brushed, long after the tangles had all come free. I brushed with no thought but the brushing. She let me dunk her tail in a bucket of water. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When the tail was perfectly clean, I brushed it until the breeze from the doorway had dried every strand and conditioned it with the smell of summer. There was something so intimate, yet so safe and healing about this mutual grooming. I brush her tail, she strokes my soul. She is the one who will never reject or walk away, never in a thousand years disapprove, never resist. She simply invites me in, and trusts.
Yet, there is no doubt in my heart whatsoever that she knows. Though I haven’t told her directly, she knows she’s going home. And, I swear, she knows that I can’t tell her that. Not just yet.
Last winter, when the wind bit mercilessly through layers of down and drove a cold steel spike through her twisted knee, she looked at me one evening, screaming gently in her silent horse way, “Enough….Help me…..” Even I could hear her. How dense, how coarse I must seem to her. I made a promise. I have to keep it.
Jess, do you know? Do you feel it? Do you understand that you are the one friend that I have? I will do this terrible thing for you, and I will do it with you. But today, today my love, I brush out your tail, hold its softness to my cheek, dissolving into the hay-sweet horse fragrance that is you.
All photographs by ZenDoe
By anyone’s standards, Kit is large. A spotted draft horse weighing more than 1800 lbs, with feet the size of dinner plates and a skull the size of my torso, she is a formidable animal. At 13 years old, she is still not broke to ride, but she has skills. When I am confused or frightened, it is she who immediately recognizes it and comes to me, long before I can identify the emotion in my own soul. Whatever trauma she endured before I knew her, recognizes itself in others. She is the healer in our curious herd of four.
This evening, I was waiting in the barn for the three mares to finish their grain so that I could give them each a helping of hay. There in the long stillness, I was suddenly overcome with a sadness so profound that I could not name it. I choked on the heat of the tears that bubbled up like an unstoppable spring. And then, I conceded, and let them flow wherever they wanted to go. You have to understand, I’m not good at emotion. I don’t understand it and it always feels like someone else’s. Any emotion I might feel lives strictly in my gut and solar plexus, a relentless roiling mass of undefined and unnamed electric chaos. Tears are strictly forbidden.
Leaning against the oak wall, heaving sobs that had no face, I felt a warm breath on my shoulder. Kit had come to stand near me. She was so close that she could have crushed me against the stall door. But, she stood quietly, still and gentle, head down and eyes half closed, just breathing. She had positioned herself carefully between me and the other two horses, and there she stood, a mountain of black and white glistening silence. She protected me with all the patience in the world, making a space with her body where I could be safe. She absorbed the grief, and held me there in her massive embrace until the last shuddering breaths had passed. Then, she turned her head and laid her immense soft nose on my chest, over my heart.
I thought, “So… this is what it’s like. This is what it feels like… to be mothered.”
All photography by ZenDoe
I am happy. I am blessed. How wonderful is it, to go out to your back pasture in the warm summer twilight, and to whistle, loud, through your teeth like your dad taught you to do, and to wait… wait in the damp silent darkening green. You hear them through your feet. Then a flash of white, and three horses gallop thundering black and copper and dun out of the dark, out of the evening shadow of trees, pounding hooves, manes and tails flying. To watch as they canter elegantly toward you, and to see them stop, gently, inches from your shoulder, heads down, respectfully demure, warm breath, hoping for a carrot. This is bliss.