Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy Year of the Horse!

When I was in my mid-thirties, I visited a friend who had moved to New Mexico. I was entranced by the colors and the vast openness of the desert, having lived in the towering, close canyons of New York City for over ten years. My marriage was ending, and the future often seemed like a dark abyss stretching in front of me.  Spending time outdoors, in a land where the horizon appeared to go on forever and the sky was a constant spectacle of Technicolor glory was definitely very healing to my battered soul. 

“Do you want to go horse-back riding?” my friend asked one morning. I had started riding horses around the time that I learned to walk, but after moving to New York, it had been at least fifteen years since I had been on a horse. Eagerly, I agreed.  We stopped long enough for me to buy a pair of cowboy boots, and next thing I knew, I was sitting on a horse, no helmet, staring out at the wide-open spaces. It felt like I had come home as I settled into the worn old saddle and picked up the reins. We made our way into one of the arroyos, the dried riverbeds of soft sand, and our guide asked me if I wanted to “let ‘er go”.  The horse and I took off, with no destination and no need to stop until we didn’t want to run anymore. I felt the wind flying around me with tears streaming down my cheeks, while pure joy flooded through me. There was a moment when it felt like we were soaring through the sky.

Okay, I said to myself when we finally stopped, there needs to be more horse in my life.

 And now, so many years later, with many unforgettable adventures with horses under my belt, we are entering 2014, the Year of the Horse. I’ve been wondering what this might mean for my life and for the rest of us on this planet. So, I decided to look into the significance of the horse in different cultures:  In the Far East, the Year of the Horse allows for safe travel, passage into the unknown, and because it is called “the Year of the Green Wood Horse”, it is supposed to bring more cooperation and compassion.  For the Irish, the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, is the one who controls the circle of life, death, rebirth. They believe that the horse is our companion on the journey when it is time to move on. The Native Americans see the horse as the bridge to help carry human beings between what is wild and unknown and the spirit knowledge that can be used to benefit the tribe. The Sufis find power in the horse being grounded to the earth while also reaching up into the freedom of the winds and the sky.  In my own backyard, Silk and Siete tell me that while we are getting older and slowing down, we still need to kick up our heels, take care of one another and enjoy each other’s company.

I am looking forward to 2014 with an optimism that I haven’t felt about the New Year in quite some time. My high hopes for the Year of the Horse are that the spirit of generosity and giving that is beginning to take hold will blossom into unprecedented acts of kindness.  Perhaps we will actually allow ourselves to be carried on the wind into a new direction of rebirth that will show more respect for Mother Earth and will benefit our collective tribe. There’s no way to predict how it will all go.  In any event, I intend to continue to enjoy the wild ride, and I welcome everyone to join hands and hold on to each other along the way.  Happy Year of the Horse!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

One Year Later

When someone says to me, “Where do you live?” And I answer, “Newtown, Connecticut,” there’s usually a shocked silence. Then, the response is “I’m sorry.” Well, I’m not sorry.  I’m honored to be a member of my community of compassionate, resilient folks who are still struggling a year after the Sandy Hook shooting to find a way to guide our children safely and wisely into the future.

Most of us who live here have been dreading this one-year anniversary.  At 9:30 am on last December 14th, my phone rang, and there was an automated message from the school superintendent telling us that the schools were in lockdown.  My heart leaped to my throat, and I ran into our office to tell my husband.  Our daughter, our only child, was a junior, and immediately the phone rang again with a friend telling us that she had just heard that there was a shooter in the high school. For a half an hour, we frantically searched the Internet and TV channels looking for more information. Friends and neighbors began coming over to sit with us in front of the television and pace around anxiously talking on their cell phones, desperate to know more. Then, the local newspaper had the first news on their website that the gunman was at Sandy Hook.  The horror tumbled forth, with each piece of news worse than the one before.

I stepped outside with my dog to breathe and have some silence. It was a breezy, sunny day, and I thought about how beautiful it was where we live.  I had looked long and hard to find this place to raise our child in an environment that was healthy and safe. How could this be happening here? Then, I thought that it could happen anywhere in this country.  More important was the realization that we were here and that even though I couldn’t see it right at that moment, there was probably a reason that the Universe had put my family in this place at this moment in time. 

In the following days and weeks, it was surreal.  Diane Sawyer and Anderson Cooper reporting on the steps of Town Hall. Traffic jams as strangers blocked the streets and brought teddy bears and candles to makeshift memorials. We’d be standing in line to get an egg sandwich at the deli and the girl who works the cash register would shout out, “Someone from Montana is buying all of you breakfast right now!”  Crazy threats shut down St. Rose’s church and caused candlelight vigils to be cancelled. Police surrounding the high school like it was an armed camp. Funeral processions that made going to the grocery store an hour long event while I sat in the car with tears running down my face as the hearses passed by.  And always, always, the courageous response of my neighbors and the whole town offering love and kindness instead of anger and hate. The principal of the high school emailed the kids almost every day reminding them: Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world. Be strong, Newtown.”

Then, we had to go on. It hasn’t been easy, and I see the emotional scars it left on our children every day.  There is a level of tension and suppressed fear and anger that lives just under the surface of day-to-day activities that did not exist here a year ago. Last night, when we learned that a student in Colorado had gone into a high school, attempting to kill a teacher and severely wounding a girl and killing himself, my daughter was so shaken up that I was at a loss of how to explain it to her as I hugged her and she cried.

When a small group of us gathered Thursday night to seek comfort from each other, we realized that beyond the issues of guns and safety in our schools, we have to find a way to show our kids that the answer when they get mad or frustrated is not to find a gun or build a bomb and go out and kill someone. I don’t know yet how we will be able to teach them that lesson, but everyone in this country needs to try.  It must become a priority because the reality is that our children are killing each other and themselves, and we can’t keep letting it happen.  We all have the power to change this. Please, don’t let it keep happening.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leading from Behind

My little horse, Siete, is constantly testing me. She knows that I have a very deep bond with her mother, Silk, and since we are a herd of three, she is the lowest ranking member.  A few years ago, I learned a way to encourage Siete to accept me more willingly as the leader. It was taught to me by a very wise horsewoman named Carolyn Resnick as part of her “Waterhole Rituals”. She called it “leading from behind”, and I have discovered that Native Americans also practiced this ritual of “walking a horse down”.  It is based on what the lead horse in a herd does and is supposedly understood by all horses instinctively as part of their language.

What I do with Siete is so simple. I stand behind her in the pasture and wait until she starts to move. Then, very slowly and with no pressure, I follow her. If she starts to run away, I stop and walk in the other direction until she is relaxed, and then, we begin again. When we reach the point where Siete is happy to have me standing with her while she grazes, I ask her to move away from me, and she does so that I can walk behind and follow her even as I am suggesting the direction that we go.

It is good for the horse to express resistance, and it clears the air between you, avoiding confrontation and allowing the horse to feel like she has the choice to stay with you or to go. There is no expectation on my part about how long it will take or any attempt to change the situation. Siete trusts me now and usually waits to see what I want to do. I am able to understand how she is feeling as I follow her, and it helps me connect with her honestly in that moment.

I have always been a take-charge kind of person. I am usually quick to assess a situation and want to get going and “get ‘er done”. Over time, I began trying this leading from behind idea with my family. I listen more, ask questions and help my daughter or my husband reach a decision without pressing the control button and causing them to feel pressured into doing it my way. In business meetings, I don’t speak up as much as I used to, sitting back so that I can sense the relationships and personalities of the other people in the room better.  It makes me feel more in harmony with everyone, and I am less invested in the outcome being how I want it to be.

I was very sad this week when Nelson Mandela died, and I have avidly read and listened to all the stories about him. It took me by surprise when I found several quotes from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that mention: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” He talked about how being a leader is like being a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." It is important to understand that this is not about tricking anyone into doing it your way. It is about setting aside the ego, not judging anyone or manipulating them, forgiving their resistance if they don’t see things from your point of view and moving the situation forward in a direction that everyone is ready accept.

At first, when I began walking behind Siete, I would get frustrated and impatient, doubting if I could do it, feeling that it would never work and that she was too spirited for me to handle.  I decided to trust that her resistance was a good thing and that even if it took much longer than I expected, we would come to a point where we enjoyed being together so much that our hearts would unite. It takes a daily commitment on my part to keep the bond alive, but without it, we both are isolated, missing something that creates a void inside.

The horses get this. Nelson Mandela got it. It’s time for me to learn the wisdom of leading from behind.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Going West

It’s been almost ten years since I’ve been out West. Last week, we went to San Francisco for my brother-in-law’s wedding, and I was lucky enough to spend a day in Point Reyes Station where a dear old friend of mine is living.  I was surprised that rather than grey, wet skies, we were greeted by dry, warm sunny desert air. The scent of the eucalyptus and the sight of those long open horizons were just what my soul needed to feel revived.

It’s a nice place to be a horse, and we saw many of them, grazing and running on the wide-open range.  I missed my girls, but I knew that they were being pampered and well-loved at home.  I fell in love with Toby’s Feed Barn, a place where you can buy hay, visit the art gallery, find fresh local vegetables and fruits at their farmer’s market, take a yoga class and sit on a bale of hay and listen to an interesting guest speaker or a band play.  It’s the kind of community spirit that I long for, and it was inspiring to see how well it works for everyone who lives there.

I came home to frigid cold weather in New England. My dear old mare, Silk, had a rough week, almost colicking from the abrupt temperature shift.  While I love the green and the stone walls and cozy fires in the fireplace in anticipation of winter, there’s a part of my heart that still lives in the West and probably always will.  It brings me to the edge, the frontier that is buried inside of me, and staring out at that big horizon makes me feel that everything is possible if I reach for it.

"All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us, the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream."  TK Whipple

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Thinking Young

Yesterday, I visited my mom and she asked me, “How old am I?” I said, “Ninety-nine, Mom. But no one thinks you are that old.”  She said, “I don’t believe it.” I told her, “You always think young.” She answered, “Yes, I think young.” And she laughed,  very pleased about it. I understand that this is one of the most important lessons that my mother is teaching me.

   I was out in the barn last night, standing with Silk in her stall while she ate the exquisitely tasty green hay from this year’s abundant harvest. Each night in the past couple of weeks, I have begun a new ritual. I stop cleaning the stall and just stay with my twenty-five year old horse, leaning against her or resting my arm across her back as we take some time to enjoy the silence. In her presence, I have been thinking about how we are both growing older and slower and wondering what kind of toll the approaching winter will have on us.  I see that I have a choice to make, either giving in to the aches in my arms and legs and back or actively stepping into whatever challenges life is going to offer me next.

   I’ve been reading the poetry of David Whyte and listening to these talks that he has recorded about being in mid-life.  What he says resonates for me so deeply. He talks about how tragic it is when children see their parents burdened by the responsibilities of their lives, never allowing their imaginations to carry them forward to the wildness or edge, only narrowing and succumbing to the burdens of their job, their mortgage, their health. And the children come to realize that the time they spend with their parents is also regarded as a burden by both of them.  It becomes an obligation that must be carried out before moving on to the next item on the list.  I am so glad that my family – especially my daughter and my mother and myself – don’t feel that way about the time we spend together. Each moment we spend together is a gift.

   Whyte talks about how at each stage of our lives, we go to a particular frontier or fierce edge that “allows us to taste the ripe fruit of our experience at any one time and celebrate and understand the season that we are occupying in that moment”. As I rest each evening with Silk in her stall, I am able to find some space in which to reflect on the frontier that I am at right now. Certainly, the winds of change are blowing around here, and in the next year, I will be facing the daunting task of once again re-inventing myself.  David Whyte says that one of the tasks of adulthood is to find the youthfulness at each stage of aging so that we grow younger again. “The radical edge is available to us, but it just looks different at each stage”.

   It’s getting dark so early now, and I’ve had to adjust my nightly routine in the barn to begin an hour sooner than I’d like it to be. As I walked back through the yard from the barn last night, wishing I had a flashlight, stepping carefully on the slippery fallen leaves and uneven ground, I was eager to reach the warm glow of the house. Whyte wrote a beautiful poem called “House of Belonging”, and he says, ”This is where I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to love.” Right here, right now, that is my mission. I’ll have to be patient and see where it leads.