Posts Tagged ‘fear’

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.

Poetry Challenge 48

May 20, 2010

We’re into leaf-out here in the interior–the leaves, still small and yellow-green, shine as they flicker in the breeze.  The wind has been stronger than usual as the ever-increasing daylight creates unstable warm air masses that move across the flats or up the river system.  The other day, I came home to find Sam in the middle of the corral staring hard at the hill behind the house, where a large spruce had fallen–luckily, along the side of the hill and not onto the house or the corral.   Yesterday, he spooked at the hose being pulled along the side of the corral.  We’re all a bit jumpy.

So write about a phobia that turned out to be nothing to worry about–or a close call (like the tree).  Let the wind blow through the poem–or have a cat run through it.

Add it as a comment and I’ll post it here.


Here’s a poem from Tim Murphrey:

Bernoullian Extacy

Scraping the ice from the pane
solidifies to my vision
the relationship between two lovers:
and the ground.
But the doubt in our courting lies
on me, an Earthbound yearning,
and I wonder if she wants
like I do, or worse.
Our union can only end in disaster.
A buzzing, as of switches being thrown,
that light, airy feeling
from my new mistress
helps to lull me into the big lie
that this may never end.
Fast, too fast! and I’m always watching,
straining to see the ground, now grown cold,
expression seldom changing,
quick, constant, moving glimpses of us sailing over,
swollen belly mocking; what was once the Earth’s
now belongs to the vespers.
She’ll have to tolerate our presence soon, as we give in
to the sinking feeling –
Our union can only end
in disaster.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 24, 2010

Now that we’re past the equinox and into official spring, everything—light, temperatures, wind, the ground, animals, us—is changeable.  Each morning more and more light seeps into the tail end of our dreams, and light lingers on into the evening.  At mid day, the air sparkles with light and flickers with the shadows of birds flitting to the willows, birches, fireweed, brittle from last summer, rustling with last year’s seed.

At night, the temperature slips below zero, with wind, something we’re not used to after the long still nights of winter.  During the day, the sun warms the south-facing slopes and melts the crystalline structure of snow piled in the yard so that it becomes crunchy, brittle, dense from thawing and re-freezing.  The sidewalks on campus run with water in the afternoon, which freezes into thick sheets by morning, making walking precarious.

Mattie gets nervous in spring and fall.  In my narrative of her life, the spring was when she went to work as a pack mare and fell into the defensive patterns she sometimes still displays. I imagine someone sometime treated her badly, thus her ears-back attitude about anything new or unfamiliar.  In the fall, once, she was left out to fend for herself over winter, gaining a taste for wood as she survived in the wilderness south of the Alaska Range.  All this happened when she was between three and five years old—still an adolescent in horse years and very impressionable.  When the seasons change, she goes through a period when no trust we’ve established between us is certain.  She’s edgy, touchy, and would just as soon be left alone.  And in spring, after a winter of eating, sleeping, and standing looking at the valley or the road below her fence, she goes into heat again.

So, yesterday, I should have read her cues better.  I was grooming her, trying to desensitize her to some touchy spots, especially the area where the girth goes, under her chest.  Things were going peaceably until she started stamping her foot, and I left my hand under her chest, asking her to put her ears up.  Instead she reached over and grabbed the sleeve of my coat in her teeth—inexcusably bad behavior, and dangerous.

I have to admit I was frightened—whole scenarios flashed through my head—but, as far as I know, I kept my cool.  I yelled and she pulled her head away.  I untied her from the fence and backed her up, flinging the end of the rope at her till she skittered across the snow backward.  She still put her ears back and rolled her eyes at me as if she thought she was intimidating me.  I didn’t let on that she was, a little.   I unclipped the lead rope from her halter and walked away.  She stood there till I came back with the longe whip, with its long popper cord.  I snapped the whip in the air behind her, and she trotted away.  I followed and snapped it again to turn her in a new direction.  She trotted and cantered around the corral away from the snap of the whip so that I was driving her in front of me and not letting her rest.  Finally she stopped and turned to me, standing stock still, ears clearly up and pointed towards me, as if to say, “Enough.  Can we make up?”  I tucked the whip under my arm and said, “Step up,” and made a come-here gesture with my hand, a cue she knows.  She came up to me, and I took her halter.  She was a little trembly, and so was I.  Then we went on to work on the longe line, as we’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks.

I don’t have a round pen, the tool some horse trainers recommend for training young horses or for corrections like the one I was trying to give her.  Because she had transgressed on one of the cardinal rules of horse manners—don’t threaten or damage the handler—I had to respond immediately, dramatically, and fairly.  The last one is the hard part.  She was challenging my leadership in our partnership, and I needed to make clear to her that that was unacceptable.  The hard part, given how vulnerable I actually am as a human working with a thousand pound horse, is not to give in to or act out of fear, for that could lead me to act unfairly and could make the situation worse. So, while I was backing her up and making myself big and scary to her with the rope end and the popper on the longe whip, I couldn’t do anything that would hurt her or make her feel truly threatened, though I did want her to feel bossed around.  It’s a kind of acting, with serious intent.  I had to keep my wits about me not to push her over the line again while I was keeping her moving, and to, at the right moment, see when she had given up the “debate” over leadership and was ready to do what I wanted, signaled by her standing with ears up.

Coming back to horses when I did, after thirty plus years away, I have relied on reading all I can read—especially newer trends in positive horse training and horse psychology, and on listening and watching any horse person with experience that I can.  What I did with Mattie was based on reading Gincy Self Bucklin, John Lyons, Cherry Hill, Bruce Nock and others.   Yet, with a rescue horse like Mattie—and during the first heat of spring—I have to keep reminding myself never to take anything for granted.

By feeding time and then by morning, Mattie was back to her sweetest self, letting me rub the itchy spots on her face and neck.  All day, the wind gusted, and, when I came home this afternoon, she was standing by the gate, her black coat spiky where she had rolled in melting snow and dotted with pale spruce shavings.   She had her ears up.  I had my good sturdy Carhartt’s jacket on.

Poetry Challenge 41

March 2, 2010

Thinking about the public act of writing–publishing, reading aloud, blogging, handing a poem to a friend.  Today, I was lucky enough to attend a panel where one of my favorite bloggers, AKMuckraker of Mudflats, was speaking.  At one point, she talked about the first time she realized that her writing, her blog entries, had hit a nerve–and how that changed her approach to writing and, ultimately, her life.

Many writers I know hesitate to publish–or find the process painful or complicated.  I procrastinate–it’s too much trouble to buy all those stamps and walk in the front door of the post office and send things off or even to hit “send” on the computer.  But when someone reads or hears something I write–you, right now, for instance–it feels like the impulse that led me to write in the first place has come full circle and is fulfilled by landing in the reader’s mind and by the thoughts it sparks there.

So, write about something you hesitated to communicate.  What stopped you?  What egged you on?  What was the sky like that day?

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 31, 2009

A New Year

And I’m ready.  This has been a year of great promise: on the national scene, a new president who represents a true turning point in American politics; on the local scene, a new mayor, a growing interest in gardening and energy efficiency, and a turn toward inventiveness and ingenuity in dealing with living well and close to the earth in our difficult climate.

But on the ground here in the Interior and at Mattie’s Pillow, it was a year that gradually accumulated small disappointments, local disasters, and a bushel of griefs.  On this blog, I’ve focused on the beauty of life in the Interior and on the challenges those of us who live here face.  In general, I’m an optimist—and living with horses, an exuberantly fun-loving dog, a garden, and all the wild and human creatures that surround us here gives me a lift and a bounce back to the optimistic when  things get rough.

But each fall, as we begin the slide into the dark days of winter, we look at those around us and wonder who will be with us in the light of spring.  Already some have slipped away: Roy Bird, Marjorie Cole—and others have taken a more dire route off the planet, something which leaves those of us who knew them still tumbled in their wake.   And, since I mentioned politics in the first paragraph, the politics has been surreal, both nationally and in-state.  But I’ll leave that to other blogs to detail.  Check the Missing Links section for more on this.

Now, on New Year’s Eve, I’m once again in New Jersey assisting my brother.  It feels odd to be far from Fairbanks.  On New Year’s, we usually go to the fireworks on campus, standing out in the cold, bundled, booted, mittened, scarved, and even wrapped in sleeping bags, lying back warm in the snow and below zero air as the fireworks sizz and burst and sparkle above us and shake the ground beneath us.  Then we spend the evening with friends in the Farmer’s Loop valley, sitting around a bonfire and watching the neighbors’ fireworks light up each hour’s passing of the year in some time zone.  I miss it, but we’re planning a red beans and rice dinner with sparkling cranberry juice, some balloons, and some poppers.

Though I miss my usual celebration, it feels right that I start the year doing some good—such as it is—for my oh-so-stoic brother, helping him get his life back after a long healing that’s not quite over yet.  Perhaps this beginning foreshadows a better year ahead.  Perhaps, instead of the euphoric celebration of (and projection onto) the election of Obama we experienced last year, this year we should each do what Obama knew he needed to do all along: roll up our sleeves, wade in, and do the dirty, tiring, sometimes thankless work of making our world, or the part of it in which we live, a better place than we found it.

I’m starting with my brother’s kitchen.  What about you?

Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog.  Thanks for your readership, your comments and poems, your willingness to stop by from time to time.  I’ll be back to Mattie and Sam in the next entry.

And the Horse

February 13, 2009

Excerpts from a work in progress:

from  Fear

So, does the horse somehow offer us courage? Is our attraction to the horse more than the size, the muscles, the flow of mane and tail? Children’s literature is full of stories of children, broken in some way: orphaned, injured, ignored–who find their strength through a horse. Take Walter Farley’s novels of Alec and the Black Stallion, a story that blends the most romantic images of the horse–the half-tamed stallion ridden by a small fatherless boy–with accurate details of the racing world in the 1950s. Alec loses his father in a shipwreck but gains the trust of the Black when they are marooned on desert island (OK. Romantic). When they arrive in New York, they partner up with a neighbor, a washed-up horse trainer, who retrains the Black for a career on the track. From there, except for the part were the Black wins every time, the details are accurate. Most of all, the details of how Alec learns courage, patience, determination, gentleness, and ingenuity from his life with the horse have moved children in the years since the books were published. And this lesson–when Alec was afraid, the Black lost trust in him; when he overcame his fear, the horse performed spectacularly–allowed children to contemplate their own relationship to fear.

Most riders don’t ride a horse like the Black, though most dream of it. Our fears are compounded by our history and by the life we live that doesn’t involve horses. Unless we raise a horse from a foal, we have no way of knowing what others have done or what accidents have torn the fabric of trust we hope will be woven between us and our horses. Those who work with horses are testing the limits of fear. We approach a new horse watchfully but not timidly. Will it kick? Bite? Shove us with head or hindquarters? We don’t want to be hurt, so we go slowly, watching for the first sign of anxiety in the horse, backing off, then trying again, until we have moved the boundaries of trust between us. The handler and the new horse need to prove to each other that each is trustworthy. The horse may see if we will back off, if it can call our bluff. The handler will test to see what’s bluff, what’s fear. Sam, my elderly horse, tries this on everyone he meets, though it’s clear to me that he means no harm by it–he’s even insulted if we give up and walk away. The goal is moving together like fish or birds do–one moves; the other moves with it in complementary motion, whether from the ground or as rider and horse

When a rider overcomes fear, that confidence may seem like folly to the non-horse person. Who would do the things a rider does? Lifting a horse’s feet, for example, or stopping it in its tracks with a raised hand, or longeing it at the end of a flimsy line while it bucks and crow hops after a long lay-off. Working with horses changes the measure of fear. We read our horses as minutely as they read us; if this holds to the rest of our lives, we are reading situations for their subtleties, knowing when to worry and when to keep grazing, when to trust the herd and when to be the one who sounds the alarm.

People want to visit my horses and I welcome them. Often, however, they are surprised at what they find. I try to teach them the simplest thing–hold a treat in an open palm and let the horse take it between its lips–a velvet kiss. This flies in the face of all the non-horse person’s fears. The large head of the horse lowers toward the hand, the breath of the horse warms the skin, the horse’s lips begin to flap in anticipation–and the person freezes, draws back, closes the hand. We try again. Mattie and Sam are patient, ritualistic about this. Then I can tell who has the courage of the horse in them. The horse’s lips on the palm are delicate, precise. They close on the treat and lift away like a large butterfly resting then rising from the palm. It’s a delicious feeling, and those who push aside their fears enough to experience it will want to offer the horse another treat.

And with horses and humans, that’s what defeats fear–the deliciousness of the whole enterprise. “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man (or woman)”, says (who? Washington?). We overcome our fears because what we gain is not just lack of fear, but an expanded sense of our selves, of possibility-the dream of the horse, and of shared enterprise, communication with another species whose history is linked with ours. Riding feels ancient and present at the same time. Standing next to a horse in a moment of stillness transcends time. Smelling a horse, lifting the mane and putting my nose in the shallow valley between neck and shoulder and inhaling, gives me courage to face whatever human catastrophes the day holds.

And the Horse (excerpts from a work in progress)

January 23, 2009

Fear and the Horse

To learn about horses is to learn about what we fear and how much fear we can embrace. Think of it–a half-ton of muscle and bone, in personality more like a deer than a dog–and we propose to walk beside it or sit on its back. In the wild, a horse, by all rights, should fear us and we should fear it, too.

And many do. When strangers approach Mattie, I can see the level of their fear. They step back when she reaches her large head forward to sniff their scent. They are awed by her sixteen-hand size, her black coat, her noises. The image of the horse is one of compliance, grace, speed. The reality is an animal only partly tame–like a cat in some ways–whose psychology somehow allows us to work with it to form a braver more powerful team than either would be alone.

Because horses have such good memories, they remember things they fear for life. Horse people tell stories of the horse afraid of men in cowboy hats or of lawn chairs or of anything blowing along the ground. One of the puzzles of working with a new horse, especially one that has an unknown past, is to discover what it fears and to find a way to comfort it with the presence of the rider or handler. This is more easily written than done. A dog trainer once told me that it takes twenty-five repetitions for a dog to develop a learned habit–for that’s what training is–and fifty to seventy-five for a horse. A horse who is truly fearful can be in retraining for years. And all it takes is one bad experience to set it back into fear again, for the memory of fear is stronger than all that training.

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