Posts Tagged ‘New Jersey’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 18, 2010

I’m sitting in Ed’s chair by the woodstove, listening to it ticking as the fire dies down; the Christmas tree is lit again.  The little spruce with the twist in the trunk that we cut from behind the run-in shed on Christmas Eve is still green and drawing water in its five gallon bucket filled with rocks.  I’m glad, for I cut my holiday season short for the trip to New Jersey.   Now, with just five days to go before the first class of spring semester, I’m grateful for the tree, the ornaments, the lights, for they’re letting me feel celebratory for a few days more.  Besides, in my family, growing up, we had a tradition that the tree stayed up till my mother’s birthday, January 18.

The time in New Jersey gave me lots to think about.  At first, the situation seemed desperate—my brave and stoic brother needed someone there throughout the day while he was/is on bedrest.  If he dropped the phone, he wouldn’t be able to call out in an emergency; if he dropped the remote—as he did when I visited in the summer—he could fall asleep watching soccer and wake up watching a telenovella.  And, worse, if no one were set up to come in during the day after I left,  how would he eat, stay hydrated, deal with the personal but essential tasks that take up a good part of his caregiving.  But, day by day, there was good news until I was able to leave knowing that he has care and will soon be in rehab to get back in shape to be in his chair—back to normal for him.

My brother has been a quadriplegic for more than twenty years.  If his accident happened now, he might have more use of his arms than he does.  With stem cell research and other newer procedures, young people facing a C-5/C-6 injury can retain more function than he was able to at the time.  But he’s done well, stayed independent, gotten a law degree, played Quad Rugby (Murderball)—in short, I didn’t worry about him until this pressure sore developed.   But this has been a wake-up call for all of us.

He could be anyone—we are all vulnerable, as scenes of devastation in Haiti and other places in the world remind us.  His vulnerability is part of his life’s normalcy—in his chair he can cook, drive, bathe, go to restaurants and malls—do most of the things anyone else can do, except get himself into and out of bed.  Being around him has reminded me not only of how much I love him, my baby brother who I cared for as a child, but of how valuable each of our lives is and what we can mean to each other.

Remarkable things happened.  I met caregivers and social workers who made extra efforts to help his situation get resolved.  I met a woman online who advocates for those in the quad community, and who called my brother just to chat—and I heard him laugh and knew that his spirits were lifting and that he would heal.  I met a remarkable group of Quakers at Cropwell Friends Meeting, who felt led to form a group to come visit my brother and just chat and check in.  There was the woman in the coffee shop who remembered me when I came in for a break from the apartment, the lady at Smoothie King who kept my debit card for three days when I absent-mindedly left it on the counter, the cousin of a friend who called and gave advice even though she didn’t live near enough to come by.  It seems like community can happen anywhere, I now see.

But here’s the thing—while my brother’s is an extreme case, it’s an example of how much the system that seems to be in place—health care and beyond—is  broken and stretched to the point of dysfunction, underfunded and understaffed.  When my brother knew the woman living with him would be moving out and that I could come for a couple of weeks to help out, it was Thanksgiving. He began calling and filling out paperwork and getting visits from social workers.  But by two days after Christmas, he was still being told he would have a 4-6 week wait.  Those who told him that were polite, but clearly overworked and could offer no suggestions to help.  They would see me there and assume that I would fill in.

All this while the “debate” on health care rolls on in DC.  But what is there to debate?  To me, now, the question is simple—how do we care for those among us who are least able to care for themselves?   And how do we care for each other and provide for the well-being of all in our community or nation, knowing that any of us could suddenly have the level of need my brother has or more?

I’m slowly recovering from jet lag and the emotional stress of the trip.   Morning and night, I’m out in the corral while Mattie and Sam are chewing hay, leaning against their shaggy shoulders, breathing in their earthy smell.   I’m glad to breathe the sharp cold air and see the orange light in the southern sky spread into day.

I tend to be an optimist.  I believe that it’s worth the effort it took to bring some things together for my brother in order to restore him to a normal, engaged life.  I’ll continue to work with him on this.  I also believe that in a good society, we would all want this for all of us.

Poetry Challenge 37

January 3, 2010

I’m still in New Jersey, avoiding the thirty-below weather in the Interior, but enjoying the blustery weather here.   In the Interior, winter air is generally still and a deep silence sets in at the coldest temperatures.  Here, the wind brings its own active cold.  At night I hear it rushing through the branches of the trees outside the window.   Walking in it yesterday, I pulled my hat down over my ears and remembered just how cold wind chill can be.

So write about what the wind brings–memories, observations, or background music.   Let it blow something unexpected into the poem.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

August 21, 2009

It’s been rainy since I got back from New Jersey and yesterday was the first day the corral was dried out enough to ride in a small circle without danger of slipping. I went out to ride Sam, hoping to consolidate what I learned in New Jersey and to get Sam back in shape for horse camp in a week and a half.

While I was gone, I visited two dressage stables, Holly Tree Dressage, in Shamong, and Transitions Farms in Elmer. I’ve already written about my first visit to Holly Tree and my ride on Cindy the quarter horse. A few days later, on a Saturday, I headed south to visit Debbie Morrison at Transitions and ride her Hanoverian, Clovis. It was a hot day—in the upper 80s—but I left early in the morning for a 9AM ride. The traffic was light, and I only made two wrong turns, and caught them early enough that I was actually on time. As I drove south, away from the congestion of I-295, I saw a landscape I recognized from childhood—white barns with silos, flat-fronted houses facing the road, fields of corn and sorghum, vegetable stands. By the time I got to Debbie’s place, I could feel all the tension of the drive wash away. I could hear crickets.

Clovis is a 17-hand bay gelding, a silver medalist in USDF competition. When I first saw him, he was in cross-ties with his saddle on, looking gentlemanly and aloof. We walked him out to the covered arena and I got on the three-step mounting block, stepped in the stirrup and eased myself into the saddle. He began to walk and I could feel his long strides pushing me forward with each step. It’s hard to describe—it was as if every part of him were in motion, as if his joints were springs. Debbie talked to me about feeling the footfalls of the horse—I had them completely reversed; I imagined that his hind leg lifting raised my hip at the walk, but the hip lowers when the hoof comes off the ground.

We walked for a while, working on my asking for give in the neck, and then she asked me to trot. His trot was so big it threw me up off the saddle in a post. I couldn’t imagine sitting his trot. He grew a little frustrated at my signals. I’m left handed and riding Clovis really pointed out to me how left-sided I am. My right leg hardly made contact with his belly; my right arm drifted out from my side. And riding him was work—everything I didn’t do precisely caused him to do something else than what I thought I was asking. He shook his head as if I weren’t articulate enough, as if I were trying to talk with marbles in my mouth—I couldn’t speak his language or share his vocabulary. But it was worth the try.

I went out again the next day, and the trot went better, and we worked on canter cues. Finally, he began a rocking chair canter, and I sat right in the center of it. All that energy: the impulsion of the hind foot, the reach of the leading front foot, the rocking leap of the gait itself. It was hot, and both Clovis and I were sweating—as was Debbie, following us on the ground. The air was dense and damp, and dark clouds were rolling in. There were rumblings of thunder and the light dimmed. At one point, as we cantered near the open doorway of the indoor arena, thunder and a passing motorcycle sounded together, and Clovis did an unplanned sideways canter, then recovered and kept on going.

Finally, Debbie showed me the piaffe, impelling him on and half-halting him all at once, lifting each shoulder and hind leg in rhythm until he performed a stationary trot. I don’t know if I can remember it enough to try it on Sam, but I might someday.

Then the sky got dark with lightning scratching through it. The thunder rumbled and crashed and the rain began to fall so hard we thought it was hail. I dismounted, and Debbie led Clovis through he rain to the barn where we chatted as we untacked and hosed Clovis down. I gave him a few treats to remember me by , then, when the rain lifted, I drove back through the farmland to my brother’s suburban apartment.

So yesterday, I tried to apply what I had learned about seat and legs and hands, both from Debbie and from Cathy, when I rode Sam. Sam was a bit put out by being ridden after a long layoff—and through a muddy corral, at that. He didn’t seem to like riding in the small circle of dry ground, and, when I tried to keep nudging him into an energetic trot, he turned and gestured toward my foot, as if to confirm to himself that I really meant it. Clearly he was contemplating an annoyed nip, but thought better of it. After Clovis and wide-backed Cindy, Sam felt small and narrow. My legs could barely find his sides. It was a short ride, but we’ll do more tomorrow.

Today I rode Mattie, and she did respond well to the seat and leg aids. For the most part, she bent into collection easily and moved well. She’s wider, too, so that the leg aids made more sense. Her gaits are so smooth, a real contrast with Clovis. It felt good to be back riding both of them.

Next week, horse camp.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 7, 2009

Smoke, a Journey, and a Horse Named Cindy

A few weeks ago, my brother called and asked how I’d like to come to New Jersey in August. Having grown up in that part of the world, I told him that New Jersey in August was part of the reason I live in Alaska—the garden is ready to harvest, the horses are in shape, mostly, and summer is winding to a close. Still, he’s a quadriplegic and needed help for a week only, and as we were making plans for me to travel, the smoke from spreading wildfires settled across the Interior, dropping ashes on our cars, the garden, the horses’ coats, blocking the sun and making it difficult to breathe. Everyone in the household, including visiting dancers, seemed to have smoker’s cough.

So, I agreed, and now, here I am, in a condo in Voorhees, NJ.

As I flew out a few days ago, I could see a wide column of smoke from the plane window—perhaps the Murphy Dome fire or the Railbelt fire; it’s hard to tell direction from a jet. We passed by Denali and over along the Alaska Range and into Canada. All through the mountain ranges, we could see smoke drifting through the valleys. The peaks we flew over seemed brown and more bare of snow than usual. The snow itself looked dingy and smoke-tan; the glaciers streaked with dark rock. I was astonished at the extent of the smoke. Some was from smaller fires that we could see pluming up from the trees; the rest seemed to be blown along inland by the prevailing winds. I was reading an old collection of Alice Munro stories, Friend of My Youth, appropriately Canadian, given the land we were flying over. When I looked up again, we were over Minnesota: green squares of land bordered by rows of darker trees. No smoke.

So, now, New Jersey, a place I left long ago. To make the trip more interesting, I made appointments at two dressage stables: Holly Tree Dressage, and Transitions Farms, one to the northeast and one to the southeast of here. Yesterday, I drove to Holly Tree to take a lesson on Cindy the Quarterhorse.

Driving is not my favorite activity—I prefer riding. Here in Western New Jersey, the roads are often the remnants of old farm roads, widened a bit to accommodate urban sprawl. The names: White Horse Pike, Eveham Road, Old Indian Mills Road—have been the same for two or three centuries. But they intersect broad, fast “highways” built in the 50s and 60s and linked with traffic circles (known other places as roundabouts). And, as happens in other places, too, directions often depend on some prior knowledge of the place. So my first mistake was to assume that I had made a wrong turn when I seemed to be headed south even though I needed to go north. Fifteen miles the wrong way later, I was straightened out by a friendly woman in a gas station. I made it to my lesson an hour late and having covered more than twice the road I needed to. The way back was worse, since I reversed the directions I needed and kept turning the opposite way I should have.

But the ride was great. Cindy is a chestnut Quarterhorse, a well-trained lesson horse. I was warned she might throw a fit when she realized I wasn’t a total beginner, but it was mild. We worked on applying the leg (inside leg to outside rein—one of those sayings in riding that takes time to actually feel in the body), and on canter, then I cooled her off and let her graze on the lawn by their outdoor dressage arena.

The place was built in the late 60s/early 70s as a race horse training stable. The barn is long and made of cement blocks with an indoor track making up the aisles of the stable. While I was there, a girl with pink hair was riding a series of colts around the track, accustoming them to life under saddle. The colts, Thoroughbreds, were tall and long-legged with that muscular, knife-like quality that racehorses have. They were alert and curious, if a bit skeptical about the world of work they were being introduced to. A dark bay colt, with a crescent of white showing over his eye, dumped his rider into the dirt of the indoor track on his way past the barn door. Another girl caught the reins of the horse and everyone there rushed over to see how the rider was. She got up and brushed off, and the business of the stable went on. Outside the barn, the farrier had pulled up in his truck, and I later saw the colt standing fresh from a hosing down, having his shoes pulled and his feet trimmed. The rider, by then, was on another horse breezing along the outdoor track with another rider and her horse.

Cindy and I were in the grass by then. She seemed glad to have at the green stuff. Her back is far better muscled than Mattie and Sam’s—the advantage of a year-long riding season. Her coat was silky and still short, unlike Sam’s which has started to grow, anticipating fall. She went back willingly to her stall, but I guess she’d rather have stayed outside on grass or in turnout. I’ll ride her again on Monday. Tomorrow, I take a new set of directions to Elmer, NJ, to ride Clovis. Wish me luck!

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