I was mucking in Silk’s stall as she ate her dinner when she very deliberately snapped her tail and hit me in the face. It was a sharp sting, and I was shocked that she would do that to me. There were no pesky flies or gnats. I had done nothing wrong. “Hey! Cut it out!” I reprimanded her, but then I wondered what she was trying to tell me. I stopped mucking and approached her right side. Putting my hand on her neck at the bottom of her mane, I stood silently and waited for an answer. I couldn't hear it that night, but I didn't give up. It’s taken me two months and several more tail swattings to figure out what my horse was saying to me.
I’ve had a long, trying summer, losing people that I loved, trying to help other people that I love, and it’s drained me of my creativity. I’ve sat in front of the blank page, feeling like I have nothing left to say that anyone would want or need to read. I’ve bought new paints, lovely spiral drawing pads, promised myself that I would do some kind of watercolor or sketch every day to start the flow again. And I couldn’t do it, feeling more and more inadequate, as if I wasn’t pushing myself enough, wasn’t able to take a step towards being brave. I’ve always believed that creativity is a healing source of power in me, but I wasn’t able to summon it.
The disappointment that I was feeling about myself spread into my video camera and my computer as I tried to edit what I shot. Nothing was good enough. I wasn’t smart enough I thought to learn a complicated new editing program at my age. I forced myself to finish a few short pieces, but could only see what was lacking in them when I finally sent them out into the world.
I can connect these feelings back to an event in June where I unexpectedly had kind of a revelation. As we were mourning the death of my friend, Paul, following the Native American tradition of keeping a fire burning for four days and four nights, I found myself sitting close to an enormous pile of blazing wood under the scorching noonday sun. Hundreds of miles away, Chief Arvol was praying for all of us and doing the Horse Dance, so out of honor and respect, I was riveted to this patch of earth until I learned that he was finished. The heat was so intense and painful. It felt like the skin on my face was burning off. Suddenly, I saw very clearly that deep in my core is a debilitating belief that whatever I do is not good enough. I was born to a perfectionist, and my mother relentlessly honed into me that I had to stick to it, push harder, do it better, never let anyone down or settle for anything less than the best. Just as she did. Just as her mother did. They handed it down, and until this summer, I’ve accepted that challenge with pride, even though I’ve always been striving for something that I never felt I could reach. The realization hit me like a bolt of lightening, and I have been haunted by it for months.
For reasons that I have yet to understand, I have continued down this path, being led by some gifted Native American elders. I was privileged to be invited to a sweat lodge led by a remarkable healer a couple of months later. Again, the intensity of the heat was greater than anything that I had ever experienced. I heard the voice of my mother, telling me that I must be strong and stick it out. Then, the spirit of my father told me that there was no shame in leaving. Even though my dad has been gone from this earth for twenty-five years, I listened to him for the first time ever and crawled out of the sweat lodge the next time the door was opened. Instead of feeling upset with myself for not being able to take the heat, I felt free, released from some kind of ancestral emotional burden.
In September, I attended a women’s leadership conference where writer Elizabeth Gilbert spoke. The best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love” has a new book called “Big Magic” where she tackles some hard questions about creativity, failure, and self-acceptance. She said something that struck a nerve: “Fear takes many faces. It shows up as perfectionism, insecurity, wanting to please our family. At the very bottom of them all is a deep basin of fear that simply says, “I am not enough, I am never going to be enough.”
Fast forward to last Friday, when I was participating in a creative workshop with a group of friends who are part of Jon Katz’s Creative Group at Bedlam Farm, being held in upstate New York. I sat in a yurt in the pouring rain with poet Doug Anderson and four other women. He gave us a writing exercise: List the things that you didn’t know you loved. On my list was “the sharp slap of my horse’s tail across my cheeks”. When I read what I had written aloud to the group, I liked it, especially that line. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about how Silk has whacked me in the face three times over the last few months and wondering once again what her message was.
While I was cleaning Silk’s stall last night, I thought that what’s not good enough for one person might be just fine enough for another. How much longer am I going to keep listening to my ego telling me that what I am doing has to be perfect, wishing that I were mastering something better and faster? Again, without warning, I felt the sharp slap of my horse’s tail across my cheeks. Be present. Be humble. Okay, Silk, I am beginning to get it. As Lakota writer and historian Joseph Marshall said, “Humility can provide clarity where arrogance makes a cloud.” There’s a lot of power in that.