Sometime around President Trump’s inauguration my heart started rippling in my chest. My sleep was haunted by the kind of nightmares that feel like cattle prods to my feet and that Night dog nudged me awake, worried. It seemed everyone’s anxiety over the new administration had jumped into the air like mumurration of sparrows, swooping and whirling through the air, making us afraid. I was reading too many Facebook posts from both sides, watching too much news, listening to too much NPR. Whatever happens in this country is not going to be changed by my watching the slow motion train wreck so intently or by trying to offer my opinion in threads that go on for days.
A few weeks later I slammed into a grief that jerked sobs out of me , this same loneliness, gutting me. I’d seen a woman who was my friend, but isn’t any longer, walk out of Farm and Fleet and look away like she knew me and didn’t want me to recognize her. (I’ve seen strangers catch my eye and smile. There’s warmth or at least a not trying to hide.) Bruce says it wasn’t her and he’s probably right but seeing her or this woman who looked like her, hurled me back to all the friends I’ve lost. While I believe friends are free to come and free to go, I grieve the ones who have left.
Another friend had thrown up wall after wall when I asked to go out to lunch. We met when my life was chronically hard. I’ve dumped into retirement, and the dramas of work have faded. The people I talk to need me to listen to them and when they ask about my life I feel uneasy. I have shared my stories so much and felt the walls thrown up by people that I don’t want to bump into yet another wall.
I slipped my shovel under manure, hefted it into my cart, and wailed, turning it over to God, the tears as hard as spading the earth, because there is no solving it, this loneliness. In Reaching Out Henri Nouwen says, “No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness” (30). I can only lean into trusting God as the one who sticks closer than a brother, who is present to me whether I feel him or not. And I can hope that maybe this ferocious loneliness will turn to solitude, a place like the barn where I can welcome people and animals to be quiet. Nouwen talks about how our loneliness can be turned into solitude. He says, “Without solitude of heart we cannot experience others as different from ourselves, but only as people who can be used for fulfillment of our own often hidden needs. The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.” (44).
This makes as much good sense as the old saying that we don’t need to be successful, just faithful in our work. It brings comfort because there is hope that we can become a meadow, with sun shining on Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed and lush grass, where people can find rest.
In Stable Relation Anna Blake writes about how her midlife crisis drove her to buy a run down farm and fix it up. There were things in her life that pushed her into this such as her studio and gallery being rented to someone else after sixteen years of her working in that space as well as a divorcing her husband. This is a story about bravery–letting a new life unfold despite the grief and disorientation of losing the old life. What strikes me the most is how Blake affirms slowing down, being quiet: “The stillness of the prairie gave me enough space to slow down, neutralizing busy thoughts with solitude. Nature spoke up. I thought I’d always been good at understanding animals but it had been superficial compared to this. My senses blended together to form a dimensional awareness that was more perceptive” (102).
Blake writes a poem that talks about how loneliness merges into solitude:
“Out on the fringe of wrong and late and forgotten
and just not being a match,
hold and listen.
When there’s a pause in the critical din
the distance between loneliness and peace
fades to white.”
Here is the link to her poem and accompanying photograph: https://annablakeblog.com/2017/02/06/photo-challenge-solitude/
Anna Blake has reminded me that I have my animals and the companionship they offer, the quiet sounds of the world around me, that teaches me how to listen to people, that transforms loneliness into solitude, something that was affirmed by acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton who said that if we listen to natural sounds we are more able to be empathetic. (I was listening to On Being with Krista Tippet one morning while I was cleaning stalls.) In Trent Gillis’ essay, “An Acoustic Ecologist Takes You on a Hike through the Hoh Rainforest” Hempton says, “A quiet place is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of truth and beauty. A quiet place outdoors has no physical borders or limits to perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen even farther. A quiet place affords a sanctuary for the soul, where the difference between right and wrong becomes more readily apparent. It is a place to feel the love that connects all things, large and small, human and not; a place where the presence of a tree can be heard.” I have started listening for the birds and coyotes singing before I could even hear the train’s horn sounding five roads away. I have begun to switch off the radio to listen to the barn–the horses pulling hay, water pouring into a bucket, sparrows.
More and more I see how I have come to ground. I use the phrase “I come to the ground the ground comes to me” as my tag line because I want to stand on the ground, and like all humans my future will call me to burrow into it when I die. I don’t want to soar, but I want to know what the earth has to tell me–the earth meaning all of it–the dirt, the horses, the chickens, the dogs, the cat. I’ve imagined soaring, climbing on top of Orion’s shoulders and lifted high enough to be terrified. It’s why I’m sometimes afraid to ride Tessie, because I’ve felt that kind of power, that can lift you out of control, into a flat out race across the ground, but it’s that very power that she offers me, as a light draft horse, with a thick neck, and willingness to move forward. Her power is her gift and I have been afraid of it.
It’s been a few years since I rode Tessie at Everbold farms, a place that offered community some twenty years ago when I was newly married, and new to a region that treats you like an outsider if you’re not related, and even if you are. When I first boarded Beau Ty my Arab Quarterhorse there, I was welcomed. Some of the people I befriended then are still friends today. I remember how I felt like I found Christ in a stable yet again with the hospitality Leslie Young offered. I returned a year after I bought Tessie and found this same community and good help with my quiet but green horse. My trainer left and I got busy with trail riding.
I’ve been welcome to ride at Everbold but a resistance set up in me that has been part fear, part inertia, part not wanting to impose, and I suppose part not believing the invitation ride in a place with good footing and a small community of horse lovers. I also remembered well the stuff Tessie did that scared me, the crow hop that didn’t unseat me, the shy that was a near about face, when we were just walking, and the final trail ride where I felt her power and had to breathe, breathe through it. What would I do if she did this while I was there? What if I came off? What if I was just plain in the way?
Sometimes I think we are offered gifts we aren’t able to receive. I’m not sure why, though I think this may be human nature. After all Adam and Eve wanted more than the garden offered them when they chose the knowledge of good and evil. Maybe it’s because staying put in a routine is too comfortable. I’ve been reminded of a summer I spent at Crown Point doing archeology and how I wanted to cross the Bridge to Vermont for a long jog along the opposite shore of the lake, but I was afraid, until finally, I pushed past that hesitation and trotted past the toll booth and over the arch, ignoring the traffic into Vermont. I trotted into the stillness of the corn fields and the sounds of August, the quiet.
I think of the perfume commercial where Julia Roberts or a look alike walks through a crowd, and everyone turns to look at her. She walks up to a wall, touches it. The wall melts and a beautiful city appears. There’s an old truth in that commercial–that another beautiful world, a city–The City of God?– is just outside a wall, and the right touch will dissolve it.
Finally I called and made arrangements to ride, after stopping out a couple times and not following through. When I arrived, Greg, who does chores, said I could put Tessie in the corner stall. There were shavings, and a water bucket and hay for her. There was a sign with my name on it and a smiley face.
The trainer, Carol Biesenthal, heard me when I said I was afraid, she’s a good horse, but Tessie does these unexpected things. She walked beside us this first ride back of the season. She said the first thing we have to do is bring back the fun. She looked at Tessie’s neck. “She’s a horse built for light farm work, not dressage. You might need to adjust what you want to do.” I explained that I want to use dressage to make me a better rider and her a better horse. It’s fun to practice stuff.
She walked beside me and taught me one skill with my hands, to ask Tessie to give to the bridle, by sliding the bit in her mouth, to wait it out if she resists and give all the way if she submits. Carol told me not to lose my temper, but to just wait it out, with a half pound more resistance that Tessie was giving. Even with another horse trotting the arena, Tessie stayed calm. And I calmed. She told me to try this walking around the arena before a ride to see how Tessie would be and then to try it when I first get on and she’s standing still.
I felt confident enough to go back the next day and ride in the indoor even though the barn owner and trainers weren’t there. I figured if I didn’t go back right away I wouldn’t. The arena was smooth and quiet. I’d ask Tessie to give to the bridle. She bowed head on the lightest touch. We circled this way and that. It was good to just plain walk, to unlock my back, to breathe, to focus on one thing and practice steering her with my seat and legs. It was good to find peace that had been waiting below my fear and to feel welcome.
There was a sign by Tessie’s stall, with my name on it, and a smiley face.