Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not Again

I stood in the bagel store this perfectly sunny Sunday morning, as I do every weekend in Newtown, Connecticut.  The line of customers was so long that it drifted out the front door next to the table where the Veterans were collecting donations and giving out little red poppies for Memorial Day.  People were chatting, my mind was contemplating all the gardening chores I need to do, and suddenly on the little TV above the coffee maker, there was a news story about the young man who went on a shooting rampage in Santa Barbara Friday night, killing six college students, wounding 13 others and committing suicide. All conversation stopped.  The YouTube video that the killer made played loudly, spewing hatred from the mouth of a very ordinary looking young white man. Everyone was riveted, eyes on the TV.

I didn’t want to be there watching this. I had not planned on writing on my blog today. Here we go again -- all the memories that I have of standing in this line in this same bagel store, a genuine safe haven for many of us who live here, on the morning after Adam Lanza shot 20 students and 6 teachers in our quiet little community just slammed and broadsided me one more time.  Looking at the faces of the folks standing next to me, I’d have to say that we all were in the same boat.  There will be no “normal” in Newtown ever again.

At home, I hugged my daughter who is getting ready to go off to college, feeling the pain that there are six other families who won’t be able to ever hug their college kids again. My heart is breaking for the people of Santa Barbara and those who lost their loved ones. My child didn’t want to talk about it, but I forced her to sit and listen to my lecture about always having her radar on when she’s away at school, even though it might seem like the safest place on earth to her.  “Mom, no place is safe anymore.” She told me, “You just have to be aware all the time, no matter where you are.”

Good answer, but I’m not satisfied. In fact, I’m alarmed, outraged and frightened. When are we going to wake up to the reality that our children are killing each other and themselves?  It doesn’t matter where they live or what race, color,  religion or creed they are – Our kids are in tremendous pain, and we stand there like zombies staring at the TV screen as one murder after another destroys beautiful promising young lives and loving families.

Don’t tell me that there’s nothing we can do to stop this. Talk to each other, talk to your children.  Start right now by hugging your kid.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Walking the Walk

This is a photo of my daughter and Siete, her little horse, taken many years ago when we first moved here.  She probably won’t be thrilled that I'm putting it on my blog. I love her expression -- it seem like the two of them are sharing a secret.  My daughter had a creative writing assignment this week to describe an embarrassing moment in her life.  While I wouldn’t dream of publicly humiliating her by revealing what she wrote, it did remind me that kids can be really mean.  Especially girls.  I’ll bet many of us have some of those real life nightmares in our past. I know I do.

 I remember how I was mortified while I was riding the bus home from camp when I was that age. Some of my “best friends” pulled my underwear out of my duffle bag, and dangled the undies out the window as a bus of boy campers went by. Then, they threw my underwear all over the bus. I will never forget the betrayal and agony I felt crawling around on the sticky, garbage-strewn floor with my mom picking it up after all the other girls had driven off with their parents. My daughter’s assignment brought up all those long buried but painful emotions for me and caused me to once again wonder why we live in a society where bullying is so regularly the norm.  How many times throughout history have kids been told to suck it up, get over it and don’t be a wimp?

What I have tried to teach my daughter is that the person who is hell-bent on making you miserable is likely in a lot of emotional pain. I know for a fact that the “best friend” who embarrassed my child was being tortured by her two older brothers on a daily basis. She needed a way to feel she was in control and inflicting pain on someone else whom she knew wouldn’t fight back was the fastest way to get it. “It’s not about you.” I’ve told my daughter countless times. A wise mentor of mine taught me the phrase, “Let it be hers (or his).” In other words, don’t take on anyone else’s issues of self-esteem when they try to dump on you.

My mother was a fighter, so out of a protective instinct that I inherited from my father, I usually attempt to find the diplomatic way out of a bad situation. I try to avoid confrontations. I’ve taught my child to stand up for herself better than I did.  I made her understand that real friends don’t say or do things that are not kind and supportive of you and your efforts.  As she has grown older, my daughter has also found her voice to speak up for other kids who are being bullied.  Last year, she called out some boys on the bus on the way home, and recently, the kid she defended told her that those guys are afraid of her.  She’s got some of her grandma’s spirit in her, no doubt.

Sadly, we live in a culture where meanness and bullying is often mistaken for power, hutzpah and a valued qualification to achieve success. There’s the boss who belittles employees or the teacher who intimidates students. There are the politicians who cruelly batter each other with accusations and insults. Social media is full of  “flame-throwers”. It’s so commonplace that many of us just shrug it off as a normal part of growing up and going out into the world. My daughter tells me about students whose parents are never home or ignore them. The only way they get any attention is to get in trouble. Otherwise, they feel invisible.

The trend appears to be shifting with more frequent mention of kindness and appreciation. I passed a billboard the other day that said “Gratitude”. Still, I wonder how much of it is just lip service where people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk? What was the purpose of students writing about an embarrassing experience anyway? The assignment was handed in, but the teacher never discussed or analyzed it with any of the kids.  If kindness matters, let’s live and breathe it every waking moment instead of just when it makes us look good or feel better.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Moving Forward, Checking the Compass

A little message from me to you:

When I started this blog seven years ago, I never realized how much it would change my life.  Through my writing and the other blogs that I read regularly, I have made treasured friends all over the world.  Over time, I have ventured out into the blogosphere beyond the generous horse loving community, and one of the best moves that I made last year was to join a Facebook group started by writer Jon Katz called the Open Group for Bedlam Farm. I’ve met even more talented, compassionate people who are part of what we like to call a Ministry of Encouragement. Now, again motivated by the far-sighted, marvelously imaginative Mr. Katz, I’ve joined a new FB group called the Bedlam Bloggers Collective.  You are welcome to stop by on Facebook and take a look at all the diverse, amazing blogs. So, I wanted to explain that “Teachings of the Horse” will be sailing a little further off the map, and the focus may not always be on my horses.  Don’t worry though, Silk and Siete will still be the spirit guides. You know that I get most of my best ideas in the pasture or the barn.

I began Spring Training today with Siete.  We both desperately need to get in shape and tune-up our connection with each other. So, the first thing we did together was to do nothing. For anyone who isn’t aware of it, I’m a big fan of Carolyn Resnick’s “Waterhole Rituals”, and when the weather permits, I spend about an hour each day just sitting with my horses in the pasture while they graze. I think of it as our “secret meeting time”.  It is truly incredible what a difference it makes to my horses and how they react to me.  To the casual observer, I am simply meditating or reading a book, but to Silk and Siete, I am being one with the herd. Siete can be quite a pushy kid unless I put in my time communing with her and her mother on a regular basis. It mellows her right out.

So, today as the birds sang and the sun joyfully warmed our backs, I relaxed and read about the philosophy of Manolo Mendez, a soulful Spanish dressage master who was one of the founders of the famous Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. This is not the tortured dressage of tight reins and cruel bits. It is the exquisite dance of intense partnership based on admiration and respect for the horse.
 Manolo “preserves the horse’s body instead of wearing it down, and gently nurtures his mental wellbeing, so that the physical and mental aspects work in unity.” He believes: “Many horses today have become so far separated from their essence, or the harmony that comes from the mind and body working in synchronicity, that they suffer needlessly each day of their lives. I witness this damage as part of my work… My approach is that each horse is trained according to his strengths and weaknesses as an individual, and never pushed beyond what he is physically and mentally capable of.”
Manolo grew up on a farm and like some of my favorite cowboys, Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, he understands that going slow and being patient are a big part of the deal.  So is balance, timing, soft easy motion and relaxed muscles. Almost everything these guys have taught me crosses seamlessly into the territory of relationships with children, elders, other animals and being a good person in general.  You can’t “be one with the horses” if there is any incongruity in other areas of your life. They feel the disconnect and let you know right away.
Fourteen years ago, I came up with the idea that I would breed Silk, and I promised her baby when she was born that no one would ever do harm to her.  Siete and I have traveled a long way together. She’s a gentle, well-loved companion. One thing I know about horses is that every day, you have to re-establish your relationship even if you're only a herd of three. And once again, it’s the season where we come together to align our compasses to be sure that we are moving forward in the same direction.   

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Drifting In and Out

The edges of our relationship are softened like the frayed old faded bath towels that belonged to my mom, still neatly folded on a shelf in my closet, next to the crystal vases that were my grandmother’s treasures.  I know she wouldn’t even remember them anymore, but I hold on to them nonetheless.

My mother’s eyes drift in and out of focus when I visit her these days. Out of the blue, she will occasionally ask a question or make a comment that is remarkably perceptive, almost psychic. Most of the time, she is content to sit silently after a lifetime of doing and fixing and being in constant motion.  There’s no more anger or guilt in me because she’s no longer capable of launching the emotional bombs that she was able to throw so accurately for so many years.  Only three more months until she turns 100. So, we are in the last chapter of our relationship, talking about what’s blooming in my garden or some other neutral, in-the-moment activity that will not upset anyone.

I brought her a small bouquet of violets in a tiny bud vase last week. With all the rain we’ve had, our lush green yard is filled with little purple and white flowers right now.  They reminded me of how on Saturday nights when I was a child, my father and mother liked to go out to dinner with me in Chicago at a Polynesian restaurant called “Don the Beachcomber” just off of Rush Street. They ordered exotic rum drinks called “fog-cutters”, and the waiter royally presented me with pineapple juice with a fake camellia and a paper Japanese umbrella floating in it.  After we ate, we would walk back to the parking garage, soaking up the glamorous nightlife of the “Gold Coast” that was so much more exciting to me than our quiet, boring country village.  On one street corner, incongruous to all the glitz, for a couple of weeks in the Spring, there was a little folding table filled with nosegay bouquets of violets being sold by a bent over old gypsy who looked like she had stepped out of a fairy tale. My father stopped every time we saw her and bought my mother and I each a little purple bunch of flowers nested in a white paper lace doily.

I couldn’t find any doilies at the grocery store, but when I presented the violets to my mom the other day, she smiled delightedly and said, “Just like Papa used to give us.”


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Facing the Frontier

With increasing frequency, I am reminded that life is fragile.  We are approaching summer once again, and I will not make the mistake this year of fantasizing about relaxing days of gardening with lush blooming flowers, happy dinners on the patio with friends and family, time in the pasture with my horses doing exercises at liberty. I dreamed of all that last year, and I feel like I jinxed it.   Not that I am going to be a neurotic, worried grump or anything, but I’m forcing myself to just take it as it comes this time around. You just never know what will happen.

It has been exactly a year since the frightening accident where the tractor rolled over with my husband on it while he was mowing the hill behind the barn. We are extremely thankful that he has recovered so well. In a few weeks, we will come to the second anniversary of when I dislocated my elbow and broke my right arm, a life-changing injury. I have mostly overcome the inconvenience, but it will continue to cause me some pain for the rest of my days. When we pulled the first ticks of the season off my husband and our dog this weekend, we recalled how Lyme disease affected Mark’s heart two summers ago, and he ended up in the cardiac unit at the hospital for a couple of weeks. I am now taking on my role as the supremely annoying bug spray queen, demanding that each of us coat ourselves before stepping out the back door. Summer does not have the air of carefree abandon that it once did. Live and learn, I keep telling myself. I’m trying.

I was deeply saddened last week to learn of the unexpected death of Angeles Arrien, a gifted writer and anthropologist whom I liked to think of as “the guardian angel of gratitude”. Each morning as I pull the milk carton out of the refrigerator to pour in my coffee, I stare at her message posted there: “Four Rules for Life: Show up. Pay Attention. Tell the truth. Don’t be attached to the results.”
 When I learned that she was no longer on this earth, I took one of her books off my shelf called “The Second Half of Life”. What’s interesting is that I read this when she first wrote it, about eight years ago, shortly after we moved here, and I was very disappointed in it.  Now, I am stunned at its wisdom and message and how it resonates with me at this point in my life.  I guess I was just not ready to hear it before now.

Among other aspects of aging, Angeles Arrien explores the dilemma of striving for a successful, ambitious but emotionally unfulfilling external life versus the need for a meaningful and satisfying inner life.  As I am beginning to re-invent myself now that our daughter is going off to college, I probably spend entirely too much time wondering how I can find work that has meaning as well as being lucrative.  I did not realize that Arrien was close friends with Clarissa Pinkola Estes and poet David Whyte, two of my other favorite spiritual guides.  Both of them have expressed their grief, and in their writing, I have come to a better understanding that we all share some of the same reactions to life’s fragile nature.

David Whyte tackled the difficult nature of honesty as he reflected on the loss of his friend. “Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are by the generous measure of grief that is conferred upon even the most average life.”

When I was younger, I would have argued long and hard that we are not powerless.  Now, I’m being to understand that from our acceptance of how powerless we are about loss or unexpected turns of events, we can reach a few steps closer to that elusive meaning that we search for in our inner life. 
Whyte calls this coming to ground and facing the unknown “the living, breathing frontier”.  Angeles Arrien wrote about ways we can all be grateful for the maps that we share with each other as we venture into this frontier.  And Clarissa Pinkola Estes, everyone’s mother and curandera, blesses her dear friend, Angie, and others who are gone: “Let the Perpetual Light shine upon them. Ever and Always. May the Light shining on them, shine through and radiate ever through us, also.” Each uncertain step we take offers us another opportunity to reach out for each other’s hands and give each other comfort along the way into the future.