Sunday, April 6, 2014

Life in the Mud

I was reminded recently of what my elegant godmother announced the first time she visited me at our home in the “country” many years ago. “You were the most sophisticated young woman I ever knew in New York City,” she exclaimed, ”Good heavens, Victoria, what happened to you?” This week, I discovered once again that life lessons come in strange packages that I often wish had gotten lost in the mail.

When I heard the steady heavy rhythm of rain on the roof over my bed last Saturday, I sat up in fear. In other circumstances, this is a sound that would lull me to sleep.  But I knew that the barn was flooding again, and at three in the morning, there was not a thing I could do to stop it.  For over eight years, we have experienced the pain and agony of draining the horses’ stalls after heavy rains and cursed the foolish people who built our barn in the lowest part of our property.  What made this instance particularly frightening for me was that I would have to fix the problem without any help from my husband or daughter, who were both away from home.

As I headed out to the barn, not even waiting for the sun to rise last Sunday morning, I could see that the trouble was in Silk’s stall. There was a knee-deep pool of poop soup by the front door, and my sweet horse was marooned in the back half of her bedroom. We had seriously sandbagged the back door, so there was no way for me to open it and lead her to dry land. It was still raining non-stop, but I put a halter and lead on her and escorted her next door to hang out with her daughter.  Being a brave and trusting partner, Silk followed me without hesitation through the downpour and boot-sucking mud to safety.

I knew the drill, dragging the sump pump, heavy extra-long electric cords, the 50 foot drainage hose and the colander from the basement to the barn.  I assembled everything and turned on the pump. The hose had a hole where it attached to the pump, sending a spray of stinky, filthy water right into my face and soaking me head to toe.  When I ran back to the house for a towel, it took every ounce of will-power not to just hop in a warm shower and crawl back into my bed.  Instead, I located another hose, positioned it so that it would drain out back into the ditch and re-attached it to the sump pump. 

For a couple of hours, I stayed with the pump, moving it with the colander so that it didn’t get clogged, praying that the mucky water would recede. Once I finally got it drained, I walked away, knowing full well that when I returned about an hour later, the stall would be flooded again as the water seeped up from the ground under the barn.  Three more times, I drained the stall and finally, before it got dark, I began dragging these back-breaking, heavy bags of wood pellets from the garage to the barn where I poured them into the hole to hopefully soak up the water as it returned overnight. My last thought before I fell into a dead sleep was that I was amazed and quite proud that even at my age, I was still able to conquer the flood on my own.

Monday morning, I woke up to the joy of Silk standing happily on dry pellets and shavings and the horror of Siete’s stall flooding. Again, feeling like Prometheus, I dragged the sump pump and all the paraphernalia back from the garage to the barn. This time, I had a much harder task since the hill above the barn was so saturated that it was not until this morning, a week later, for true dryness to be achieved.

Other women might long for new kitchens or expensive jewelry or exotic trips abroad. French drains, excavators, big trucks full of lovely gravel and crushed limestone fill my dreams. My husband has returned, and the best thing that he has promised me is that this is going to be the year when we conquer the flood.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Horse Nation

I haven’t had much time for myself during the last couple of weeks because we have a Japanese student staying with us.  She is delightful, curious and intelligent. It has made me stop and question and explain many of the routine things that I do and say each day. I am really enjoying the chance to see my world through fresh eyes, encouraging me to interpret American customs and actions.

My daughter has been studying the present plight of Native Americans, especially the Lakota tribe that lives at Pine Ridge. It is a complicated, tragic situation and explaining it to our friend from Japan has caused me to really be ashamed of how disrespectfully and cruelly we are still treating these original keepers of this land we live on.  There is a very powerful talk that was given by Aaron Huey, a photographer who has taken some amazing pictures at Pine Ridge.Here is a link to Huey’s presentation that I hope you will watch: 

 There are some shocking statistics, like the average life span of men on the reservation is 47 and women is 52.  In many of the photos, there are horses, some with young men riding them without saddles or bridles.  I was really drawn to the closeness and the understanding that clearly exists between them.  The horses appear to me to know so much about the suffering and seem to be there in some way to protect them.

I spent some time alone with Silk last night before dinner, just standing with her and rubbing her neck, leaning on her back.  I thought about Huey’s photos and what he said: “The suffering of indigenous peoples is not a simple issue to fix. It's not something everyone can get behind the way they get behind helping Haiti, or ending AIDS, or fighting a famine. The "fix," as it's called, may be much more difficult for the dominant society than, say, a $50 check or a church trip to paint some graffiti-covered houses, or a suburban family donating a box of clothes they don't even want anymore. So where does that leave us? Shrugging our shoulders in the dark? The United States continues on a daily basis to violate the terms of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties with the Lakota… Honor the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It's not your business what they do with them.”  Huey has started a non-profit called Honor the Treaties (

I live every day with my horses reminding me what is important about not losing the rituals of our ancestors, protecting the water and land where we live and leaving our children a world that can sustain them and offer them some hope for their children’s future.  So, I believe it is also time for us to honor the Sunka Wakan Oyate (Horse) Nation and pay attention to them.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Being an Advocate

I brought hay to the horses this morning while the doors of their stalls were still closed and threw it over the top of the Dutch door. Then, I dropped a flake out in the corral and opened their doors. Immediately, Siete, who is nicknamed the Inspector, had to come out and try the hay in the corral to see if it was tastier and better than what I had given her. This is such a strong element of my little horse’s personality. She always has to be certain that no one else is getting any special treatment that she might want for herself. Her mother, Silk, is far more generous and trusts that I will always give her a share of the best that I’ve got and be fair. I believe that her faith in me comes from all the times that I have been her advocate and stood up for what my horse needed most to feel well-cared for and safe.

    I’m part of a group on Facebook that discusses the down home but eloquent philosophy of horseman Tom Dorrance. Recently, someone posted this quote by Tom: “"I wish I could describe the picture to you of what I see in a horse as I look at him and watch him and try to see him as he is, A Horse. I try not to think of him as anything other than a horse. In watching horses, I try to let them tell me what is going on within themselves. There are so many things to try and bring out, it's hard to get it separated and get it in order, so that people understand. When I say I want the person to think of the horse as A Horse, some people might think that isn't much, but I'm trying to bring out that the horse is really, really something special in his own uniqueness. I'm trying to stress the importance of the horse, of really seeing that horse as a horse, of seeing what he is and his potential."

   I think that every interaction with my horses, from feeding to riding to medically treating them if they are sick, is an opportunity to strengthen my understanding and my bond with them. While I don’t expect them to be anything but horses, I have had opportunities to learn so much from both Silk and Siete. Through being an advocate for them, I have learned how important it is to support and defend not only my animals, but the people in my life who might not really be heard even if they are able to speak up for themselves.

    Recently, when I visited my 99- year old mother in the nursing home, she was wearing these elastic socks that were too tight for her. The nurse insisted that they were necessary because her ankles were swollen. I pointed out that they needed to be a larger size and took them off my mom’s feet. Next visit, they had fitted her with a bigger pair of these socks, but she told me that she really hated wearing them. I spoke to the head nurse and contended that at the age of 99, I really didn’t see any good reason to force my mother to wear something that she hated. The nurse seemed surprised that I was questioning her authority and her decision, but admitted that there wasn’t any serious medical necessity for the uncomfortable socks. My mom was so grateful when I pulled them off once again and forever, and she could freely wiggle her toes.

   There’s always a moment of fear that grips me as I step up to advocate, but I’ve never regretted doing it. Challenging a doctor or one of my daughter’s teachers is not something that comes easily for me. Yet, I know that’s the foundation for building a bond of trust between you and someone – two or four legged – that you love.  People who know me probably get tired of hearing me say that I’ve learned some of my most important life lessons from my horses, but this is definitely one of them. Again, I think about one of my favorite things that Tom Dorrance said: “The rider needs to recognize the horse's need for self-preservation in Mind, Body and the third factor, Spirit… He needs to realize how a person's approach can assure the horse that he can have self-preservation and still respond to what the person is asking him to do… I didn't use to elaborate on the third factor, Spirit: I only just mentioned it. But I've begun to wonder about it in the last few years. Maybe if people got to realizing the importance of that part of the horse, they could be more understanding from right in the horse's innards. Then, they could try to figure out the mental and physical parts…I've felt this in horses all my life, but I don't think I realized how important it was to try to calm that inward part down. I was always working on the surface, both mentally and physically - not getting down to the inside of the horse. No one is going to get this without coming right out of the inside of themselves. The rest of it has to come from inside the horse.  Mind, Body and Spirit is what we are talking about here.”

    Wise words from an old cowboy who really listened to the horses. So much of what everyone needs is the self-preservation of Mind, Body and Spirit.  If my loved ones feel for some reason they are lacking this, I am not about to stand by and not try to remedy the situation. And I promise also to try not to see them as anything other than who they are -- each “really, really special in his/her own uniqueness”.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Mother Within

 This morning after I fed the horses, I stood at Silk’s stall door and felt Spring in the air. It reminded me of the story of Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility, whose beautiful daughter, Persephone, was stolen by Hades and taken to the Underworld.  Demeter was devastated, and the world lost all hope for the future, as everything turned dark, frozen and barren. Demeter was able to strike a deal with Hades so that every Spring, Persephone would return to her mother, and the world would be reborn with joy and playfulness and new green sprouts. Throughout the summer, flowers and fruits would flourish and the warmth and love would flow so that there would be a boutiful harvest. Then, in the fall, it would be time for Persephone to return to Hades, and her mother would fall into despair and lose her will to create.  The world would be cold and harsh until it was time for Persephone to appear again.

   As I looked out at the bare cedar trees on the tired, snow covered hill above the frozen, dirty corral, I could feel that Persephone had left the Underworld and that in a week or two, she would reach her mother, and we would be given the gift of renewal again.  Softly, my horse nudged my shoulder with her sweet, velvet nose and breathed on my neck. My mama horse, my spirit guide, reassuring me that when I feel like I’ve lost my creativity or my only daughter leaves for college or the world turns bleak and heartless, this too shall pass. 

   I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Secret Life of Bees”: “You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside... When you’re unsure of yourself, when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, ‘ Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand?”

    It has taken me many years to understand that life is full of cycles, and that the path is a spiral not a straight line.