Good Grief Charlie Brown

Yesterday I spent a little time looking for a trip. I’ve been — with a couple short jaunts up to Colorado Springs — in the San Luis Valley for the past three years. Yeah. One reason, of course, has been Covid. The other money. Boarding dogs isn’t cheap. A lot of people choose not to have pets because they want the freedom to travel. I guess I’ve done the converse.

In the process of looking for a trip, I did, of course, find a couple. Then I read the fine print and some of it concerned me. Even thought they are well-organized group tours for “seniors,” they have this:

Tour pacing & mobility

  • You will walk for at least 2 hours daily across moderately uneven terrain, including paved roads and unpaved trails, with some hills and stairs.
  • Travelers should be healthy enough to participate in all included walks without assistance. Adding optional excursions may increase the total amount of walking on your tour.
  • You should feel comfortable managing your own baggage at times, as well as getting in and out of boats and ferries.
  • Go Ahead Tours and the Tour Director who accompanies your group are unable to provide special, individual mobility assistance to travelers on tour. The responsibility of the Tour Director is to ensure the group as a whole enjoys a relaxing and informative journey, and he or she cannot be relied upon to provide ongoing, individualized assistance to any one traveler.
  • If you have any mobility concerns or physical restrictions, please contact our Customer Experience Team.

I thought about this for a while. Well, I’m still thinking about it. My walking problems aren’t a matter of endurance. I can’t define exactly what they are. I think it’s the reality that artificial joints just don’t work like the joints we’re born with and yeah, I have a messed up knee which adds to awkwardness when I’m tired. Getting in and out of a tour bus wouldn’t be easy for me. Walking on uneven terrain? That’s fine.

When my first hip went south almost 20 years ago now, I grieved that loss as if it were a person because it was a person. The person was me, the person I’d always been, the person through whose eyes I saw the world. The abilities taken for granted (and enjoyed by this person!) defined a big part of my identity. “I’m not sure who I am, but I can go four miles in an hour in the mountains.” Nothing else worked. My romances didn’t work. I never got tenure so I worked as a lecturer at three schools, one of which, true, gave me three year contracts. No big publisher wanted my books or stories but dammit! I could go four miles an hour in the mountains. And then, suddenly — it was pretty sudden — I was doing 12 miles with a kid from one of my classes, a collegiate athlete, a body-builder who hiked with me every weekend for his aerobic training — and I was in excruciating pain several times, and had to stop. “I don’t know what’s going on,” I said to him.

“It’s OK. We all get injured.” He sat down on a log and took a drink from his water bottle. “Stretch for a while. We can rest.”

I put a hand out to balance beside a tree and did a few hamstring stretches until I felt better, a little loser in my hip joint. Back in those days, I got massages regularly and my masseuse had noticed there was no space in my hip joint. She diagnosed it a year before it began to hurt and three years before my (incompetent) doc sent me for a hip X-ray.

All my life until then — from childhood — if something went wrong at home, at school, anywhere, I could go for a good run and regain my balance. All that running led to my being a very fast young girl, and my coach wanted to send me to Olympic Training Camp when I was 13 or 14.

Running was my ONE thing, and suddenly it was gone forever.

We think of grief as the emotion we feel when we lose people (and animals) we care about, but we can also grieve parts of ourselves, abilities, independence, beauty, potential. I don’t know that we “recover” from grief; I think we just learn to live with the loss. There’s a lot of stuff about “recovery” and the “lessons we learn” all that — yesterday I read in one of the little literary anthologies published in the Valley every spring how humans learn from pain. The story — an anecdote about losing a beloved dog — said that animals don’t have this ability (I disagree…) and it’s the ability humans have to learn from pain that makes grief redemptive. I’m not sure grief is exactly “redemptive,” but continuing one’s life after a major loss is definitely another fucking growth opportunity.

As a positive person (positive meaning concerned with the possible) I looked around for help in redefining myself and existence without the ONE THING I could do. Direction was everywhere. Like the night I got the X-ray results (finally) in 2006 I leashed my sainted Lily T. Wolf and we went out in the darkness to walk up the road. The road that passed my house in Descanso, California, didn’t have much traffic, especially at night, so it was a quiet walk. The stars shone in the moonless sky. At the end of the road was a pasture with several red horses. As we approached their fence I heard them all move toward me. I walked over to the fence and found five soft horse noses reaching for me. I’d walked down this road many times and the horses had never lifted their heads.

I stroked their noses and any other parts of their heads and necks I could reach. They leaned over the fence to touch noses with Lily. As I walked along the fence, they followed me. In the next pasture, the horses there did the same thing. I must have petted ten horses that night.

The next day, on my way home from school, I bought a big bag of carrots and returned to the horses. They all gathered at the fence and I noticed that ALL of them were old, arthritic, with swollen joints. Many walked slowly favoring a sore leg. One horse couldn’t chew the carrot so I chewed it for her and gave it to her on the palm of my hand. I stayed with the horses for a long time and cried. A few months later the horses were gone. Glue? Dog food? I don’t know, but for me the time they spent with me had been a miracle.

I am 100% convinced they knew everything that was going on inside my heart and saw me as a fellow traveler.

I decided then that everything I would need to cope with this major loss of self would appear somehow. I just had to be open to it. I was about to enter a new world with a yet undiscovered self.

When you get a hip prosthesis the advertising promises all kinds of things. You see guys skiing moguls on them, running on them, all kinds of things which are indeed possible. But there is the question the ads don’t tell you about which is, “Should you?” The answer there is that depends on how often you are willing to go under the knife. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that the surgery is nothing. You’re knocked out. Rehab is long, and, though it’s rewarding because the pain is gone, there are always ancillary annoyances like kicking opioid pain killers and picking up your life where it was before. After my second hip (I have prostheses in both hips) I got cross country skis which proved to be the ONE true compensation for not running, but I don’t have any friends who X-country ski so I’m limited where I can go. I’m willing to go anywhere by myself, but I’m also not foolish. I know I can get hurt or stuck or godnose, so… Anyway, I don’t know anyone who wants to do it as much as I do. It’s always something. Like no snow…. Grrrrrrr…

I haven’t gotten over the loss. I doubt I ever will and reading “fine print” like that I read last night about mobility? The bottom line is I’m still walking and I have a big white dog who understands me and a little black dog who is the realization of joie de vivre when we’re out there doing whatever it is we do on that gravel road in the magnificent light, surrounded by mountains.


The featured photo is the pasture and two of the red horses. You can see how one of them is standing (back horse) with her leg lifted off the ground. The mountain is Cuyamaca Peak. The photo is taken from the exact spot where Lily and I spent time with the red horses. The hills behind the horses burned in the Cedar Fire a couple years before I took this photo.

Horsing Around

I read an article this morning that said medieval horses were “not much bigger than modern day ponies.”

I can’t believe that this had to be researched by zooarcheologists. All anyone had to do was look at Icelandic horses, the direct, unadulterated horses brought to Iceland by Vikings in the 10th century throughout the medieval era. They are little horses. They’re great, but they’re little. And anyone who’s looked at an armory in a museum can see how small people were — not just in medieval times, but even at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever I’ve looked at medieval or early modern armor I’ve thought, “Those were fierce little guys.” I’m 5’1″. Much of that old armor is for men smaller than I am, and certainly smaller around though I’m not especially heavy. It was a different scale of human. How would a 4’8″ human in full armor get on and off a Friesian the way he would have to in battle? That and for those people horses were transportation; they had to be convenient, intelligent, responsive. Not one trick ponies, but companions.


We have such fragmented views of the past. I thought about this listening to a friend tell me about his boss. My friend was sure the guy had been in Viet Nam because he had photos of airplanes on his walls, looks to be in his 60s, etc. Turned out, no. The guy’s hobby is photography AND he’s too young for “Nam.” “I just made all that up!” said my friend. It wasn’t an illogical story, but minus some readily available facts.

Back in undergraduate school I took astronomy which I loved. For our final project, we were assigned a star. My star was E-Ori or the middle star in Orion’s belt. It’s a very interesting star actually more than one star. I had to do spectroscopy on the star and various other things and write a ten page paper about my star. Well, I couldn’t find ten pages worth of material about E-Ori (I should have tried harder, I admit it) so I wrote a fable purportedly from an ancient culture that believed the stars were the souls of the dead.

When I got my final project back, I got an A on the lab report and a mixed grade on the fable. My professor gave me an A; the lab teacher an F. “This isn’t science,” the lab teacher wrote. “Good story,” wrote the professor. And other things that boiled down to his belief that literature and history had something to tell science. His point was that IF the fable had truly been from an ancient culture, we could have learned where Orion was in the sky and where the people had lived, among other things, including that these people were very aware of the position of constellations. Those are pretty cool bits of information — were they navigators? Did they live by water? Did they live in the desert? Had the star positions changed in the intervening millennia? All kind of questions could emerge from a story like that, questions that could help scientists thought, admittedly, they wouldn’t say much about the chemical nature of the star. He tried to persuade the lab teacher to soften her position on the grade but to no avail. The question is there any such thing as “pure” science, “pure” art, “pure” history? I don’t think so.

My professor’s words really struck me. Maybe science and history are not exclusively this or that. Supposedly I’m an artist, but the more I’ve learned about the chemical composition of my paints, the more interested I am in being an artist. In the process of writing Martin of Gfenn I learned a lot about how paints were made in medieval times and THAT interested me in the whole chemistry of fresco painting. The world — human life — itself is not so neatly compartmentalized. Anyway, just my wandering thoughts this morning.

Horsing Around

My friend Lois is a horsewoman. It’s kind of a semi-late life development, though she had a horse when she was a girl. A lucky and wonderful series of events brought her into the farm of some people who are passionate horse lovers. They are elderly and the horses need to be ridden. This has given my friend incredible opportunities and the chance to ride horses without the responsibility and expense of owning them. To tell the WHOLE story would need another post, so I’ll just filter out what is, for the moment, extraneous material, and tell you about what we got to do yesterday.

Yep. I got to go hang out with some horses.

These horses are BIG (as you can see) and I’d need a crane to lower me down onto one of their backs.

One of them I like especially. He’s wise and has a sense of humor and likes me. Simeon. (Feature photo) He’s kind of an obnoxious horse to some of the others, but I love him and I got to feed him carrots.

The object of the visit was for me to meet the newest horse — the mini, Victor (also feature photo). He’s only one hand (ha ha ha like I really understand that beyond a theoretically) higher at the withers (though Bear, strictly speaking, has shoulders) than Bear. Victor is charming, beautifully made (some minis are a little odd looking). He begs for food and soon realized no one was giving him any. He yearned to go out in the pasture with the big horses, but a couple little dominance struggles with the big horses mean that he has to be a solo horse for a little while. The owners are getting him a friend who will arrive in a week or so.

Victor


I developed my personal lifestyle in grad school, and I’ve refined it over the years. These people can go, “Wow. We need another mini-horse,” and plop out almost as much money as I’ve ever earned in a month. With that kind of choice comes a level of responsibility I’m glad to have been spared. 🙂

The Day I Got My Painted Horse

Long ago I had the vision of retiring to a small Montana town and living on a few acres outside of Billings in a little green house. I would have goats, make designer cheese and, most important, a painted horse would live in my front yard. Sometimes when I was visiting my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank, Hank and I would take a drive. I had the immense privilege of driving Hank’s beloved Little Red, a 4 cylinder Dodge truck from the 80’s, a simple truck with a shell, a carpet in back and a few cinderblocks to help with traction. It had a standard transmission, five on the floor, and Hank was continually impressed that I could drive it. Hank had suffered retinal detachment so he could no longer see other than some limited peripheral vision, so he couldn’t drive.

We’d head out west of town to the small farms. It was clearly an area that was entering that twilight zone between housing development and farms, but it was still farms and we were happy.

On one such drive, Hank spied the green house and the horse. “I think this is it, Martha Ann.”

Fast forward a few years. I’m living in Descanso, CA, next to La Familia Lopez, the greatest neighbors anyone ever had. They were a family of five — husband, Andy, wife, Sofi, three kids — two beautiful girls and a baby boy who, by the time we both moved away, was three years old. The fence between our properties was real but also an illusion. We were a family.

Andy is a cowboy but at that time he was working for a concrete company. He has incredible skills, old-timey skills, like roping, and leather working, and metal working, branding, training horses — the list is longer that that, even. Over time I learned that Andy missed being a cowboy but he had families to support and the money he was earning was good. One day Andy called me over to the non-existent existent fence and asked if I’d mind if he put a little corral against my fence. He was getting a horse and Sofi didn’t want it close to the house (we both lived on a little over 1/4 acre plots of land in a small town in the Cuyamaca Mountains).

“Why would I mind?”

“The smell, I don’t now. It’s a horse.”

“No. I don’t mind at all.” The corral was put up under the shade of a couple of oak trees near the boulder where I often sat and graded papers.

Nothing happened for a long time. Just the corral and an oil barrel in one corner.

Then, one crystalline February morning, I got up to get ready for school and opened the front door and there, essentially in my front yard, stood a painted horse.I remember standing in my doorway looking at the painted horse being completely amazed that I “had” a horse. I ended up spending a lot of time with him.

Brownie is the only horse I’ve ever really known and he upended everything I thought I knew about horses. I guess I always thought they were just kind of dumb stubborn animals that needed to be mastered by a person sitting on their back who NEVER let on that they were afraid. “Don’t let it know you’re scared.”

The way I understood that was that a horse would take advantage of my fear and try to hurt me. That’s not actually what it means. What it means is that if the rider is afraid, the horse thinks there’s something dangerous somewhere in the area and they need to get out of there. It’s not about the rider. It’s about the horse being a prey animal. Horses read minds. Seriously, they do.

The only other horse I’d had much experience with was my high school friend’s horse, Irish and the plain fact is, Irish really did have a malicious and mischievous streak. She’d done many evil things to get me off her back, including throwing me over her head onto a rock.

In time, I’d gotten so I could ride Irish, and we developed a kind of “friendship” but I never really “knew” her. But Brownie? That’s what the kids named the painted horse. His people were very busy, and I was very close, so within a few days, Brownie found a way to let me know who he was. I dreamed that he opened the fence, walked through my front door, came into my room and walked into my heart. It was one of the most real dreams I have ever had.

I spent hours with Brownie. Our relationship wasn’t only based on carrots, either. He was waiting for me at night when I got home from school and greeted me with a nicker and a few hoof scrapes on the ground to show me he was happy. Sometimes I’d come home and find him and Dusty hanging out together. Lily T. Wolf slept beside the fence where Brownie stood. He would close his eyes in pleasure when I scratched his nose. I always saw he had hay and water when his people were gone for a while. If I walked up the street, Brownie followed along the fence. He loved his kids and let Little Andy do anything to him — climb on him, around him, under him.

Andy Jr. rides Brownie for the first time

I could go on and on and on about Brownie, but I’ve written about him here before and I doubt I’ve said anything new here. But what I learned from that horse profoundly changed my life. His was the purest love I’ve ever felt.

P.S. Andy found a job on a ranch in northern CA and they moved up there. A few months after that, following Andy’s advice to me to “follow my heart,” I returned to Colorado. We’re still in contact, both of us living where we belong.

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Freedom — Reflections on Riding a Horse on Christmas Eve

Daily Prompt Happy Happy Joy Joy We cry for lots of reasons: sadness, pain, fear . . . and happiness. When was the last time you shed tears of joy?

I’m pretty easily moved to tears of happiness; tears of sorrow? Not so easy. That’s something to hide, the vulnerable underbelly of our lives, a soft spot. But happiness? I’ve learned that the moments of life’s beauty are fleeting and I want to be fully present when they arrive. Most of the time the moments are bits of the passing parade. My neighbor’s third grade daughter pretending to be Laura in Little House on the Prairie and collecting snow for maple syrup. A little boy running toward our shared fence yelling, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” as if the sun rises and sets with me. The look on a student’s face that says, “I got it!” My friend’s mentally challenged son helping me make Jello. It sounds, maybe, Pollyanna-ish but I think it’s healthy to turn attention to the beautiful moments. Once in a while, though, I’m the central character in a beautiful moment.

That happened last week, Christmas Eve.

I used to be a contender. I mean by that I used to run and hike on hard hills almost every day. If you do that, you’re going to fall and you’re also going to put a lot of wear and tear on your joints. I knew this. I knew that sooner or later (I hoped later) I’d have problems. I’d been told this but no one went farther and said what the problems would be. So, when I was 52, 2004, I started experiencing terrible pain in my hip not just when I was hiking, but all the time. I thought it was a pulled muscle or??? Time passed. I went to the doctor who misdiagnosed it because I was so young — but truth will out and it was advanced osteoarthritis in my right hip. Three YEARS later I had surgery — hip resurfacing — to repair it. By then, other damage had accrued. My knees, both with historical injuries, had been carrying more than their fair share of the burden of me. They were not in good shape, either.

After that, because of that, I was different psychologically. Formerly, the best part of my life was out in nature, challenging my body and seeing what there was to see. Afterward? No. I tried to return to my former pursuits but with the restrictions I had (no running among them) and the knowledge that I could be HURT, it was not the same. It was confusing. All I’d wanted during those three or four painful years was to get back on the trail. When I was able again? There was a core of sadness and fear where there had been nothing before except maybe joy and anticipation — and freedom.

So…move on, right? Other things — good things — found their way into that hollow place and pushed the sad part further and further down. Each age has its beauty, they say.

But…it wasn’t what I wanted. It would be OK. I would make it fine. Great other things existed, right? I could do them — did them. Then, one morning in January I walked out my front door and saw…

A HORSE.

I’d known about him. I’d talked with my neighbor and explained it was OK with me if he used one part of my fence as the horse’s corral. I explained I didn’t mind the smell of horse and I basically liked horses, not with any grand passion. I was never a horse crazy girl, but horses were OK with me.

In fact, in 2005, I’d had an experience with horses related to my arthritis that had made me regard them with respect and affection. The day when my (inept) Dr. had finally made a correct diagnosis, and had his office staff call me, the day I learned I had osteoarthritis in my hip, I was completely bewildered by the information. No one explained what that meant and I was scared. That evening I took my Siberian husky, Lily (then a young dog) for a walk in the pure mountain darkness of Descanso, California. Walking always helped me think.

We just walked down the road — a mile. At the end of the road was a large paddock filled with horses. I never paid any attention to them on my walks, and they never paid attention to me. I knew they were there but? So what. There were more horses than people in my town and, anyway, I’d never related all that well to horses. But that night…in the dark I heard them nicker. I walked over to the fence. In the pitch darkness I couldn’t see them. There were eight or ten, I don’t know, all pressing against the fence asking to be petted. I stroked necks and noses and felt them push each other away to get close to me. I stayed for a while petting them then turned toward home, passing the next paddock, also filled with horses, who did the same thing. That night I must have patted sixteen or twenty horses. It was a strange and intense experience, and I felt I’d been given a gift. Until the next day, I didn’t know the magnitude of the gift.

Grateful to them, I decided to buy a big bag of carrots and visit them in the day time. When I did, I saw that they were all old horses with varying levels of arthritis. All of them returned to the fence, some slowly, each step painful and hard. One had a very hard time reaching me and when she did, I saw her teeth were down to nothing and though she wanted a carrot, she couldn’t easily take it. I chewed it and spit it into my hand and gave it to her. Somehow these immense and alien creatures had KNOWN everything about me the night before. From then on, I have loved horses and wondered about their abilities, their understanding, their empathy.

So, this past January walking out my front door one morning and seeing a horse essentially in my front yard was a real thrill. I’d have done a little dance if I could.

Horse

I got to know Brownie well and I really loved him. My neighbors tried to persuade me to get up on him and ride, but I didn’t think I could. I spent a lot of time with Brownie, though, talking to him, feeding him carrots, giving him his hay when his people were gone for the weekend. Mostly, though, I just liked hanging out with him. Knowing Brownie made me very happy and I missed him a lot when he and his family moved away.

I have known for a while that horses have been trotting into my heart, but what, I wondered, would I do with them if I couldn’t ride them? Could I learn to care for them and train them? Maybe. Could I work at a horse rescue, mucking out stalls? Well, the physical limitations that kept me off a horse also didn’t make it that easy for me to lift heavy shovel-loads of manure, but maybe. Then, last week when I was in Colorado Springs, I went with my friend to her riding/horse knowledge lesson at RCA Equestrian.

I was going to watch. That was OK with me. I liked it a lot, just being outside and being around horses and I am completely behind what my friend, LM, is trying to accomplish. I love it.

My friend’s lessons involve not just getting on a horse, but getting the horse out of the barn (putting the halter on and leading her out), brushing her down, saddling her, leading her to the ring, “talking” to her with body language and a whip (not to strike the horse but to talk to the horse). My friend is learning to tell the horse to walk around the ring to the right, the left, to come to her, to back away from her. My friend is learning to speak “horse as a second language.” Her horse is a good teacher.

When my friend got her horse out of the barn, the teacher, Rebecca, brought another horse out of the barn. She told us about the horse, how he was a lease. She told us about some of his qualities and that she’d only had him out to ride once. She tied him next to LM’s horse.

I watched for an hour or so and enjoyed it very much. Other horses were all around, some in fenced paddocks, a couple of them running free. It was a glorious day on the open prairie and except that I could feel my lips getting sunburned, everything was GREAT! The kind of compromised great I’ve known since my hip surgery. “I can’t ride, but I can be here,” kind of great.

There’s a lot to be said for acquiring that kind of philosophy. It’s the lesson of my experience. In a bizarre way, the pain and suffering and fear and so on led me to a peaceful resignation with each passing moment. Love it or lose it, what it amounts to.

Then, suddenly (it seemed to me) Rebecca told her daughter to saddle the other horse. “Use my saddle,” she said, “With the soft pad.” I imagined the next step in LM’s lesson was going to be “talking” to her horse while another horse was in the ring. I thought it would be cool to watch.

Rebecca’s daughter brought the saddled horse over to the ring and Rebecca called out, “Martha, do you want to ride?” I was stunned.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Do you want to try?”
“I don’t think I can get on the horse. I’ve had this surgery and I can’t swing my leg over the horse. I guess I could try getting on from the wrong side.”
“Do you want to try? I’ll hold him and you can use the steps. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, OK?”

Oh, I wanted to. I was deeply tired of what I could not do and, anyway, I’ve never been afraid of trying.

“OK. I’m not afraid to ride, Rebecca. I’m not afraid of the horse. It’s getting on. It’s a mechanical problem.”

She uses horses as therapy animals for lots of physically disabled people, people with MS, MD, paraplegics. I KNOW I’m a person with no problems in comparison to that. I was simply afraid of dislocating my femur or cracking the femoral head or shifting the acetabular cup. I had also NEVER attempted to mount a horse from the right.

I climbed the steps. Rebecca held the horse (Spanky). I put my right foot in the stirrup, and awkwardly swung my left leg over the back of the horse. I was on. Rebecca is short like I am and the stirrups were already fine. She let go of Spanky. I felt an intense rush of absolute joy run through my body. I was on the horse. I began to sob. Here was something I could do. This wonderful species who’d shown me — out of no where — so much care and affection, I was ON him. I leaned forward on my saddle and wrapped my arms around his neck, I was so incredibly happy. I was embracing all those old horses and Brownie and this horse who held me standing perfectly still.

After that? I can ride. I rode. I was liberated from everything on Spanky’s back. Liberated from the arthritis in my knees. Liberated from the inability to move across the earth. Here was freedom.

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