Archive for the ‘View from Mattie’s Pillow’ Category

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

May 25, 2011

We’re into full green-up now.  Just a week and a half ago, everything was still so brown that we all fell into a funk.  The land was stripped of snow and no green leaves or grass or flowers had yet dared to grow toward the sun.  But not now.  The last few days have been in the seventies and, being Alaskans and tough enough to walk out in forty below, we griped about the heat.  But not for long.  The lingering dusk/dawn, and the brilliant daylight have increased our energy and our vitamin D levels to an effervescence.

Still, spring has its perils.  Though grass in my lawn is growing inches a day, by last Friday there was plenty of last year’s dead grass and brush on the ground in the woods in the surrounding hills.  On one hill, Murphy Dome, a fire flared up and filled the sky with smoke.  From Ballaine Road, I could see the smoke roll up into the sky and see the darker smoke where a tree went up or where fire retardant was dropped.   I know lots of people who live in that area—in fact, I had trailered Mattie and Sam over to Colleen’s new riding arena on Murphy Dome Road the day before, and, until I realized that the fire was not near her place, felt a chill of fear for her and her horses.  As it turned out, no homes were lost, though several friends had some worrisome moments watching the water dump planes fly overhead.  Our firefighters were right on the spot and even managed to put out a fire on the other side of town at the same time.  But the heat and the long dry spell we’re in have us worried and nervous for the fire season to come.

We go on.  The light lulls us. It’s hard to be too blue in this weather—at least that’s how it feels to me.  Tonight, as I write this, I’m also thinking of a former student, Matt or Soup, who decided that he’d had enough on Sunday night and left the planet.  Perhaps he experienced his own personal apocalypse; it’s hard to tell.  It’s another in the long line of sorrows that have formed an undercurrent to the spring.  It’s an inexplicable thing, but depression has its own logic.  I wish everyone could love plants or horses as I do and be healed by them.  I wish that the sense I have in this season of the energy of growing things pulsing along could buoy up everyone I care about.

Perhaps the allure of owning animals and growing plants it that it gives us the opportunity to create a micro-universe where our best intentions can have some good effect.  Sam, I tell people, would have a much worse life if I weren’t taking care of him—he’s not lame anymore and he’s trusting me more than ever.  Mattie, too, with her sense of her own bigness and her fear of pain, would not fare well with someone else, perhaps.  They’re better off in my corral, I tell myself.

But what of the humans we care about?  Could anyone’s best intentions have saved Joe’s magnificent brain from cancer?  Could anyone have stopped Frank from shoveling snow?  And Soup—could anyone have read behind his smile, his goofy kindness to see how hurt he was and where it was driving him?

I’ll keep planting cabbages, squash, carrots, kale, peas, beans, and all those pansies I bought at the greenhouse the other day.  I’ll keep transplanting tomatoes till all my little plants are in their big square buckets where they’ll stay all summer.  I’ll keep hoping for the best.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 17, 2011

The Cruelest Month

The days are warmer now—in the 40s (Fahrenheit) but in the teens at night.  In the corral, the snow is melting and compacting to hardpack ice, and gradually all the manure we didn’t manage to collect throughout the winter—first the ice storm, a series of deep snowstorms, several flus, and other distractions—is emerging in ragged brown mounds through the ice.  Sam looks pretty ragged, too.  His gloriously long teddy bear coat is coming out in clumps and hangs from his belly in a ratty profile.  I was afraid that there was no horse beneath all that hair, but after much work with the shedding blade, his fine short summer coat is emerging and with it his aging athlete’s muscle definition.

As Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month”—for there have been a string of deaths that have emptied out my reserve of grief.  The most recent, yesterday, was my long-time poet friend, Joe Enzweiler.  Joe has been struggling with brain cancer for the past two years—who knows how long the tumors had actually been there, but by the time they were diagnosed, he was on a slow slide off the slippery slope of the planet.

Joe trained as a physicist, but always wrote poetry and, when I met him, he was one of the brilliant young men in a writers’ workshop that also included Dan O’Neill, Linda Schandelmeier, Jean Anderson, Patricia Monaghan, Gerald Cable, Elyse Guttenberg, and me.  Joe was the one whose poems always seemed to contain a vocabulary that flew off the page to somewhere unexpected.   He was tall and wiry with an unruly tangle of blonde hair and an elusive quality—he would leave town for his brother’s farm in Kentucky nearly every year, so that he seemed to have the Cheshire quality of appearing and disappearing.

He managed to make a life for himself in a cabin he built among birch trees on Old Cat Trail.  He had electricity, but no running water, and he heated with wood.  One of the ways he meditated on the nature of this world and generated poems was to head out to his woods with a Swede saw and cut small trees—thinning out his patch of forest—which he stacked in a mosaic pattern under his porch.  He also stacked rocks, and had a years’-long project building a fieldstone wall through his brother’s Kentucky property.

Joe believed writers should write, no more, no less.  Because he had his land and could do carpentry work in the summer, most of his time was spent just writing—or running, or reading, or cutting wood, or engaging us in long conversations that drifted along as if there were no other demands on either person’s life.  Talking to Joe could make you feel that work was an indulgence, a distraction.  The true work was the written word.

Joe and I had a years’-long habit of getting together for Poetry Thursdays.  It started when he needed help navigating a computer version of one of his books—what to do about margins, fonts, etc.  It evolved into sometimes his reading aloud new drafts of his developing memoir, or my reading him new poems or horse essays.  He took the manuscript of my book and chapbook and gave me useful suggestions on poem order, sections, and the paring away of words.

Every Christmas, we would go to Joe’s place to thin out a spruce from “Joe’s Tree Farm.”  We would stop for tea first, then head out in a rush to find a tree before the waning light left us.

Now, he has left us.  “So many,” Eliot says, “I had not known death had undone so many.”  But Eliot’s words still live—and so will Joe’s.  And he was right: writing (or art or whatever we can create out of our own uniqueness) is the true work.  The rest is distraction.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 31, 2011

My grandmother has been in my dreams lately.  She was a woman who painted, gardened, swam daily, and taught me to eat with the right fork.  I’ve been puzzling over her sudden return to my sleeping life.  Then, this week, I learned that a dear friend I met in my twenties, a painter, calligrapher, gardener, who also knew about the right fork and who spent her entire life living her own way, is in hospice care with terminal cancer.  Now, it seems clear that, in the way of dreams, she and my grandmother have conflated and that she, Kim, was tugging at the fabric of the collective unconscious to let me know that she was in this transitional time.

I will write more about Kim later.  Some of you reading this blog know her, by coincidence.  She would be abashed to know that I am writing about her.  For now, I’ll post this recent poem about my grandmother and, I see now, about Kim McDodge.

——————————-

I Dream of My Grandmother in a Frank Lloyd Wright House

 

The roof pebbled flat,

the rectangular windows,

white stucco walls.

 

Inside, the light, underwater green,

filtered through curtains.

 

I find she

isn’t  home.  She has gone

somewhere interesting

in a big car.

 

On the table:

her bracelets, a necklace,

a few crushed tissues,

a filmy scarf,

dull gold.  And pens

and magazines, detritus

of a life–

 

she can’t wait any

longer for me.  I stand

with my intentions

smelling the stale air

in the house—or

is it the exhale

of her impatience

as she gathered up her keys?

 

In any case, she is off,

driving away

her own self, now,

headed to a gathering

of clear minds

 

 

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 8, 2011

Still thinking of John Haines.  The days are brighter now.  The morning sun glows through the glass southeast wall as I sit with my back, warm, to it, grading a few more papers and sipping coffee with honey.  In the late afternoon, returning from classes, meetings, e-mail, I head down the straight east-west course of Chena Pump Road, built, so a railroad friend tells me, along the old railbed of the Tanana Valley Railroad. The sun is high enough around five o’clock to flare in my eyes, driving straight into it, and the ice still thick on the road from last November’s three-day ice storm shines in a mirror of the sun’s glare.

 

Sunday night, coming home around seven from a gathering, I noticed that the light in the sky was soft pale blue, a bit yellow toward the hills where the sun had set an hour before.   This is a tender light, silvery in texture, that lingers longer as the days edge toward spring and summer.  This is a light that passes quickly in places closer to the equator, but that those of us who live here relish—it’s a light that is soft as a slow exhale into spring.

 

I thought of John that night as I drove through that light along a four-lane highway past a cluster of box stores, most less than five years old, none more than ten years old.  John hated such things, though he liked his comforts when they were offered to him—a good meal, someone’s car to drive, an apartment with running water.   For the twenty minutes it took me to drive home, I watched the sky darken, imagining how he might have seen it.  The light, a complex mix of pastel blues, pinks, yellows, spread ahead of me to the west.  The spruces along the ridgeline as I drove closer made a dark jagged line like teeth or fur against the palest light.  The slim fingernail of moon hung low and slipped gradually toward the western hills. For the sixty some years John lived in the Interior, he had seen these things, or sights like them—but had seen them without fast roads or chain stores, even after they were built.  To him, the development of recent years was a temporary phase, while the land was—is—enduring.

 

It occurred to me, on that drive, that I had let the vision in John’s poems–the spare images of the north, its wildness, its curmudgeonly truths, its tenderness toward the fellowship of others in this difficult place—dim in my own passage through winter and summer.  After all, I live in—or pretty near—town.  I spend my days in a large institution surrounded by people and infernal computers.  I’m keeping this blog, if erratically.  John was a typewriter man, the manual kind with all the satisfaction that pounding on the keys could bring.  I think that, in recent years, he may have learned to write on a computer, but I know that he didn’t hesitate to share his distrust of modern technology, even while he made use of it.

 

John was a complex, difficult man, but now, with him a week gone, I find him in the spikes of spruce, the bite of cold in the morning, the gleam of March sun on snow.  By the south window, chickadees and redpolls dart up to the bird feeder.  The cat sits watching, tipping her head toward them as they swoop up and away.  I see the gray topline of the Alaska Range, irregular along the south horizon.  The valley and the flats stretch white, cross-hatched with darker spruce, all hundred fifty miles to the foothills of those peaks.  Out there, a musher may be following a trail John or someone he knew once followed.  The dogs rush on, panting, eager to lick at the wind they make.  The musher holds the sled and runs and rides behind.  The sky arcs over, darkening, with a hint of aurora, the ghosts of ancestors.  There’s John Haines.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 16, 2011

Quest Finish

Still cold in the Interior.  The temperatures here on the ridge hovered around twenty below all day, slightly warmer than yesterday, but still cold to be out on the Chena River moving at a blazing five miles an hour behind a team of tired dogs.  As I went about my day of meetings and classes, phone calls and e-mails, part of my mind was always on the progress of mushers on the Quest trail.

At the end of the day, I logged back into the Quest site to discover that there was a new leader, Dallas Seavey, a twenty-three-year-old rookie who planned on using the Quest as a training race for the Iditarod.   Rookies usually run this tough race a few years before they end up in the top four, but  Seavey isn’t a real rookie.  His father, Mitch, has been running long-distance dogs for years, and he is following the family tradition.   His bio says he’s been training dogs his whole life and this flawless run shows it.

But this race has been like a novel with its interwoven threads of drama.  I keep thinking of Jack London, a writer too often overlooked in the American literary canon, perhaps because his work–at least the Northern stories–seems so romanticized.  The relationships between men and dogs in White Fang and Call of the Wild seemed romantic to me before I lived in Alaska in their suggestion of  deep attachment between human and dog, yet that attachment is what a long race like the Quest is all about.  There’s also the race between mushers and their ultimate enemy, the cold.   Even the strongest musher can become slow-moving and slow-witted if some accident of the trail leaves him or her chilled.  Ghatt’s plunge into overflow, Neff’s delay by a blizzard at the most daunting summit of the trail, these are the accidents of the North, the luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We follow the Quest because it reminds us of our own fragile peace with the cold and dark of winter.  The race comes at the first return of light in February, when we start to consider the return of spring.  But winter hasn’t let go yet, as the temperatures of the last few days show.  I drove home today in dimming afternoon.  Behind me to the east, towards Canada and the path the mushers were on, the sky was slaty blue, darkening quickly.  Ahead of me, to the west there was a watery pale light lingering over the ridge.  I had plans of building a fire in the stove, feeding Mattie and Sam, eating a bit, then heading down to the river to see the first place winner come gliding in toward the finish.

But luck has its own ways.  The house was cold and it took me a while to realize that we were out of fuel oil and needed to make a run back to town for a gas can full to tide us over till the truck can come out tomorrow.  On the way down the hill, we saw what looked like a house fire on the flats–floodlights and smoke and flashing red and blue lights.  Like the mushers, we need to pay attention to what’s around us, to the details of survival that keep us going.

We came home and got the boiler going again.  The window in the woodstove is flickering with birch flames; the house is heating slowly.  Phoebe, the cat, is curled under my arm as I type, one paw resting on the laptop, purring slowly.  The remaining mushers on the trail will continue to come in over the next few days, including the handful of women on the trail, who I’ll write more about tomorrow.

Till then, congratulations to Dallas and to Sebastien, who followed him in short order.  Congratulations and a scratch on the ears for all good dogs who pay attention to the trail and lead us on.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 14, 2011

Yukon Quest

The leaders of the Yukon Quest are a day away from their finish in Fairbanks, after a long week and a half on the trail from White Horse, Yukon Territory.  When they left White Horse, the weather was balmy for the Interior in February–temperatures above zero, clear skies.  But in the last day or two temperatures in Fairbanks have dropped to thirty below, and for the mushers along the trail now between Dawson and Circle, strung out along the frozen Yukon or attempting Eagle Summit, it is even colder–in some spots nearly fifty below.

What started as a glorious race, the front-runners in high spirits about their dogs and their abilities, takes a perilous turn at about this point.  One musher, a multiple Quest winner, Hans Ghatt, broke through overflow–where water breaks over thick ice above  a stream–and became wet to his shoulders.  When  the next musher came upon him, he was going into hypothermia, and heard the musher approach as in a dream.  The second musher helped him back to the checkpoint, where he learned that he had frozen a couple of fingers, and, knowing when to accept the luck he had, he scratched from the race.

The leader, Hugh Neff, seemed to be burning up the trail, hours ahead of the others, but the cold and a storm on Eagle Summit stalled him and a second musher, who caught up with him and stalled as well.  A third musher came and helped Neff’s team up the hill, but near the summit, they turned and retreated back down the hill.  Now, the leaders have switched positions, and Neff may or may not get back on the trail again.

Whenever I have a good reason to, I have my students read London’s story, “To Build A Fire,” which has special significance to them if they’ve been here a few winters or have grown up anywhere in Alaska.  In the story, the man is condemned by his insistence that reason is more reliable than the instincts of a dog.  Anyone who has followed the Quest knows differently.  The Quest dogs are hearts with legs and tails; they will do anything for their mushers, who, in turn, will do anything for their dogs.  One rookie musher sleeps in the hay along with her dogs when she camps at night.  Any Quest musher–even the toughest–gets teary eyed when talking about the dogs in the team.

So it’s tough on everyone when dogs die in the race, and they do.  Usually, after necropsy,it’s clear there’s a reason–an undetected weakness in a blood vessel, for example–but often the cause is unclear.  Like endurance horses or race horses, these dogs get constant veterinary care when they are at rest.  If there is any chance that a dog is ill or unfit, they are pulled from the race.  No mistreatment of dogs is tolerated by mushers or by race officials.  Still, the race itself is a risk,with long stretches of solitude, away from human contact.  Things happen.

The race is an elemental test of human and animal spirit–not for everyone.  And it’s starkly beautiful.  Photos of the teams running along the flat white highway of the Yukon against the backdrop of the river bluffs are dramatic and compelling.  There are few challenges that match it, even for an armchair follower like me.

Outside it’s dropping down below twenty below here on the ridge.  Mattie and Sam have long late-winter coats that keep them well-insulated, and I’ll head out before bedtime to take them another flake of hay.  I’ll look up at the waxing gibbous moon, if it’s still above the ridgeline behind the house, and think of those mushers on the trail, running and resting in the soft gray light, thinking of the hamburgers waiting for them at Angel Creek and of the flags on the Cushman Street bridge in Fairbanks, rising over the Chena River, the finish, and a well-deserved rest.  Any time they get there, someone will be there, cheering the dogs for a few more yards, welcoming them all home.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 21, 2010

Dark of the Year/Dark of the Moon

Tonight, Winter Solstice, a day when the energy seems sapped from the waking hours by the cold and the infringing dark.  Today, I glanced out a window at three in the afternoon and, from inside the lighted building,  it looked and felt like midnight.  Usually, I manage to be home around this day of the year–usually perched on a hard chair, coffee in hand, a stack of papers in front of me.  My eyes get blurry after a long session of this–a day or two, depending on the class load–and morning and night begin to merge.  But today, I was up and about, putting in a few hours on campus, advising students.   I was inside for the brief hours of sunlight.

Then, tonight, a shadow dented the moon, then spread over it till it was fully rusty.  We turned off all the lights in the house and went on the deck to watch the last bit of bright moon slip into shadow.   Across the hill, people turned off their lights–even the string of blue Christmas lights we can usually see high on the ridge across the road went dark.  From time to time, somewhere on the dark hillside, a camera flash lit up.

I stood in the twenty below air, in my Muck Boots, down vest, and wool sweater, very still, hands thrust in pockets for warmth.  As the moon darkened, the stars brightened, and gradually the sky seemed dusted with them, crisp against the black curve of space.  For a few moments, I could feel the depth of the galaxy, the universe, as if the strange darkening of the moon cast it all into perspective and I could sense clearly the way we’re falling through that infinite liquid emptiness.  Strangely, it’s a comforting feeling–as if I were reminded of a long journey we’re all on or brought back to focus on the long-way-to-go destination of it rather than the minutiae of getting there, such as waiting, ungraded papers.

Standing there in the unlit night, bareheaded in the cold, my hands deep in the pockets of my down vest, it seemed like a good time to reflect, re-evaluate, refocus on things that truly matter.   Meanwhile, Sam, in the corral, pushed his food dish around like a dog, wanting to get at the last crumbs.  He’s never lost sight of  what matters, as far as he’s concerned.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, we’ll be easing back into the light, making our resolutions, thinking of the first seed catalogs to come.  Tonight is the turning point, and the psyche curls into  a hibernating ball, then stirs to stretch out into another year.

 

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 23, 2010

Global What?

After the last post about the lovely time Mattie, Sam, and I had free-longeing in the deep dry snow, we in the Interior have been hit with two days of rain, fog, and ice.  While this kind of drippy weather is common in the Pacific Northwest, it’s unheard of here in the usually frozen north.  Our ground has been frozen for more than a month now, and the frost line is well below the surface.  What this means for us is that the rain on the roads turns snow first to slush, then to a thick layer of ice.  Everything—tree branches, fences, even horse manure—is coated with a slick clear layer of it.  It’s lovely in some ways, but it’s shut down the whole town and surrounding area for two days and counting.  The long-term forecast has it continuing until Wednesday night—too late for last minute Thanksgiving shopping.

The good news is that we just stayed home—then heard that even the university had cancelled classes, something that has never happened in my experience, even during periods of 60 below.  Articles in our local newspaper, the Daily News-Miner, show cars in ditches and the slick shine of ice on the roads.  Friends are calling and Facebooking each other to see how they’re holding up.  One friend is nearly out of coffee.  Another reports that a small willow fell on her mother’s car.  A third is tying on her and her sweetie’s ice skates, headed out to play hockey in the road.

Last night, we were settled in the living room with our laptops—remember the days when it would have been books?—when we heard a buzzing hum and saw a flash of green light out the window.  We looked at each other.

“What was that?” I asked.  The power stayed on, but, as usual, I thought of the horses and went out to check on them.  Sam, the watch horse, was standing outside the run-in shed, looking off up the hill behind me.  I went and checked them and took them a bit of hay to encourage them to stay in the shed.  Their coats were wet, but they didn’t seem cold.  On the way back in, I unplugged the water tank heater, still not sure what the strange light had been.  The snow was soggy with rain and a few small birches arched over the cutbank, glistening with ice.

Beck inside, I settled in once again, picking up the book, Horses in Human History. Suddenly we heard the sound again and saw the flash.  I pulled on my rubber muck boots and Mike put on his coat, and we opened the door.  The whole sky lit up green and the buzzing was louder than ever.  It seemed to be coming from up the hill where there is a power line cut running through the woods.  We called the electric co-op and learned that there were power outages everywhere and that they had just cut off power to that line.

Up until that point, I admit, it had been kind of fun—a bit of an extended holiday.  After that we thought of all the trees on our hill, how we lose a couple every summer in a windstorm.  Neither of us wanted to go to sleep, and when we did, it was with one ear open to the sounds of trees thumping.

Today, all’s well, but soggy.  I am headed out to the corral to put a waterproof blanket on Sam—more for my comfort than for his.  I’m planning alternative Thanksgiving dinners, since I don’t plan on driving out to shop—and the Seattle airport is hit with snow, as well, which means empty shelves for us.  We’ll have chicken and pecan pie, cranberry sauce from frozen cranberries, mashed potatoes from the buckets of potatoes stored in spruce shavings in our yet-unfinished tack room, and maybe some purple cabbage that’s out there, too.

By Thursday, temperatures are supposed to head back to normal for us—below zero.  All this slush will turn into glaciers. We’ll be chipping away at it for the rest of winter—an icy footing under the rest of winter’s snow.

And I’m wondering where this all is heading.  This weather blew over to us from Siberia, and it stretches the length of our state—Prudhoe to Anchorage—nearly 800 miles.  It sounds like the tail end of it is hitting the Pacific Northwest—so it’s possibly a 2000-mile weather system following a changing pattern of wind currents here in the North.  While the thought of the Interior developing weather like Alberta, as I heard once on NPR, has some appeal to a horse lover, the process of getting from here—the boreal forest, the deep cold of winters, the lovely dry air—to there is not a magical transformation, and means the loss of more than  just trees and grassland.

I’m not a scientist, but I know scientists here working on problems related to global warming—fish diseases, melting ice lenses, sea ice retreat, insects killing the boreal forest.  Things are out of whack, and we are just beginning to grapple with what it takes to think and act our way through it.

Meanwhile, coffee’s on.  I’m going to wrap this up and go dry off Sam, then settle in for a good game of Scrabble.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 14, 2010

Fine snow sifting through the air—a day of gray on gray.  I went out to the corral to rake up manure and add it to my newly-half-built manure compost bin and spend time with Mattie and Sam, who are on their long winter layoff.  Though the darkness comes earlier now, there’s still a time during mid day when the sky is full of light and the snow seems to catch the light and magnify it in the air—even on a day like today when there’s no sun, just flat, filtered cloudlight.

I just finished a conversation with my friend Joe, a brilliant poet who has been part of my writing community for the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in the Interior.  He is ill; in the midst of a visit to his brother back east, two summers ago, he was struck down by a seizure and discovered that he had a brain tumor.  Now, it has returned, and he is back in Ohio, living through rounds of treatments, MRIs, hope and despair.

I have been thinking of him, of how fast our lives can turn and on how little.  Here at Mattie’s Pillow, I find it possible to believe that I can fend off trouble with good intentions.  If I keep my hands in garden soil and horse manure, I magically believe, I will stay healthy and strong.  I recommend it to anyone who asks; the transformation of hay to manure to compost to soil to tomatoes to the delicious meal of pasta I can share with a friend such as Joe seems powerful to me.  The best part of the magic is that the horse is in the middle of it all, the agent of transformation, health, and strength.

But I know there’s more to it than that.  There’s randomness to disease.  It does no good to search back to the time the disease began, for that moment can’t be predicted or changed.  We can only go forward.  I told Joe that his friends here love him and asked what I could do.  I wish I could send him this snow—so dry and fine, falling with a soft hiss and softening the edges of fences, trees, rocks, the trucks parked for winter, the horse manure pile.  I wish I could bring him here for a few moments to run his hands over Sam’s thick coat, lift his pale mane, and breathe in the yeasty horse smell.

I’ve been reading a book called The Horse in Human History, by Pita Kelenka.  I’m going through it slowly.  It’s an academic book, dense with facts and details.  But it suggests that the connection between horse and human goes back farther than we have previously assumed.  The horse is part of our psyche—whole cultures have evolved as they have because horses were made with strong backs, fast legs, and a predisposition to move in concert with others of their herd.  The horse exists deep in our collective memory—swift, powerful, mysterious, and willing all at once.  And we exist deep in theirs, if it makes any sense to draw a parallel.  At least, the horse as we have bred it reflects our deepest dreams of what we want it to be—and what, by the same token, we want ourselves to be.

Another writing friend, Sue Bowling, has been blogging about horse color varieties—the variants of palomino, for example: cream, champagne, dark gold, and more.  She gets into the genetic details, the places on the chromosome that change for each color.  For me, thinking of horse colors touches on the dreamlike qualities of horses—the colors have significance to horse owners, they go in and out of fashion—and how we respond to the colors from deep within.  Sam, the fleabitten gray, seems white in winter.  Seeing him looking over the corral fence from the road below, a neighbor girl called him a magic horse.  And Mattie—I blame much of her “issues” on the response some early owner had to her dark coat—the “Fury syndrome,” I call it.  She lived up to the negative expectations some humans placed on her as a big black horse.  I know they’re not really black and white; Sam has flecks of brown and black, and Mattie is really a dark bay.  Still, it’s beautiful to see them together in the snowy corral—the light and dark, yin and yang.

I want to send Joe a bit of what Mattie and Sam give me just by standing in the snow, letting it blanket their winter coats, and letting me lean against them for a while.  I want that magic transformation for him and for us all.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 31, 2010

Halloween night, and winter is here for real.  The moon is past the quarter, slimming to crescent, and the night sky is dark with gathering clouds moving over the valley from the south.  This week, after a long, gradual fall, we had a day of snow and dropping temperatures, so that now snow sits fluffy and dry on the ground, the fence line, the garden beds.  It’s just in time for an Interior Halloween.  Puffy parkas fill out a costume nicely, and kids are unrecognizable in them.

We don’t have many kids in the neighborhood, though a family with three kids has moved in across the street since May.  I’ve given up preparing for kids to come trick or treat, so Halloween passes by like any other day, except that it signals a return to Alaska Standard Time—an extra hour of sleep the first day, darker afternoons for the rest of winter.

Today I went out to work with Mattie and Sam a bit.  Their coats are growing in like thick plush, delightful to touch.  In the mornings when I go out to feed them, sleepy and grateful for the interval of outdoor time that chore offers, I lean my arm over Sam’s back and press my face into his fur.  He’s like a hooved teddy bear, despite his bad behavior at summer’s end.  Mattie is less cuddly in winter.  Cold makes her cranky, but she’ll let me run my hand under her mane and scratch her on the forehead.  She feels like thick velvet and, even with the long coat, gleams in sunlight.

The riding season ended for us shortly after classes began at the university.  We had one last clinic with Hannah in September, during which Sam had a spectacular bucking fit, and Mattie and I earned our Bronze Horsemasters rating on the flat.  I’ve been concerned about Sam—we will never know what set him off: a yellow jacket or the sight of horses and riders emerging from the woods in a nearby field or some soreness or just perversity.  Trish, who was riding him, hit the dirt but fell well and primarily injured her confidence.   Later in the week, Colleen, the vet, came out and we stress tested him for lameness and found that he was very sore in his right front pastern and slightly sore in the left.  We checked saddle fit, and the saddle that had fit him like a glove in the beginning of summer now put pressure on his withers, which had filled out, and the saddle generally didn’t fit the contours of his back as well.  She also gave him a full chiropractic treatment and he seemed to relax immediately.  Poor guy.  By today, he was trotting soundly.  Nevertheless, I’ll have him on a joint supplement for the winter, and probably forever.

It’s been the political season, too.  I reflect back on the entry I wrote when Obama was inaugurated—how happy and hopeful I felt.  This political season has been gritty and stranger than usual, even in Alaska, where we have a three-way race for Senator.  I follow politics avidly, though I rarely write about them here.  As someone who teaches writing and whose students are often on their first tentative steps toward entering the academic world after years of working, raising kids, or being in the military, I usually avoid discussing politics in the classroom, and it’s become a habit.  Still, I’m saddened that language has become such a victim of the political process, including an Orwellian style of doublespeak. I’m sadder still that the shouting and vitriol has obscured the efforts of a few decent candidates.

I imagine the world a better place if the “nice guys,” the ones who view public office as a service to humanity rather than a ladder to power or some idea of religious entitlement, would get elected and govern politely.  I’d like it if I’d get phone calls from the winning candidates, like the ones I’m getting from the campaigns, that ask me what I think, what ideas I have, or give me a heads up on the process.  I imagine them all sitting down over scones and coffee and chatting pleasantly about their vision for the world: I want them to want more gardens, more poetry and music, and lots of smart children who have a good and lively place to go learn every day.   I want my friend, who is sick and housebound and watches Glen Beck every day, to get her Medicare and the in-home help she needs—without a sense of irony, but just because it’s what she deserves as a neighbor in the wider national community that we all belong to.

I will be out on the corner Tuesday waving signs for the candidates I support.  For a brief time, before I get too cold to hold my sign up, I’ll imagine a world where these things are true and possible, and I’ll wave at my neighbors as they drive by.


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