The Sparkle That Lingers

Lea and Marlee
Rosie playing with her toy while Marlee entertains kids on her back
Emily Vander Haak hearing a secret from Rosie
Emily VH and Marlee cuddling at the fair
Haflinger display right before the fair opened

Another fair is over, the Haflingers are back in their own beds, as are we.  What was remarkable about this year was the heat requiring fans and misters for the horses (over 90 degrees several days of the week) and the number of children we put up on Trillium and Marlee’s backs for their first ever opportunity to “ride a horse.”  The reality was, there wasn’t any riding to be done, only sitting, but a “pony sit” was so popular at a fair with no pony rides, we at times had a line up of 10-12 children waiting their turn.

I had never seen so many children, some as old as ten, who had never even sat on a horse before.  In a rural county, that is a sad fact of life.  There are fewer families able to afford to keep a horse, or who know someone with a horse to share, and the liability of pony rides as a business has jumped insurance to the point where they simply aren’t offered in carnivals or fairs any longer.  Horse camps and riding lessons are too expensive for many families in tough economic times.  These are children who will never know the wonder and challenge of feeling a large animal under them, learning to work together as a team and to be confident enough to ask for and expect obedience.

So we started putting kids up on the horses, for a minute or two each, just so they could sit on those broad Haflinger bare backs, hanging on to manes rather than a saddle horn, and have a basic lesson in mounts and dismounts.  They learned to find favorite scratch/itch spots on the horse’s neck and withers, learned to move slowly and talk softly, remembered to say thank you with a stroke on the shoulder.

My favorite part, over and over, was watching those children as they first settled into place behind the withers and then looked out at their parents and siblings standing out of reach outside the stall, with the line up of other children waiting their turn.  Their eyes would get large and sparkly as they felt the horse warm, strong and soft beneath them, and that spark ignited a smile that never stopped as they realized this was a “real” horse, not a video game, or a bouncy plastic horse on springs.  There was a time for them to be speechless as they took in the sensation, and then becoming very talkative, if I asked them questions, like what the horse felt like to them, or what it felt like to be up so high.  They would sometime share the most remarkable thoughts in those few minutes.  It felt almost like a confessional.

There were a number of special needs kids, some autistic, some with cerebral palsy and other physical limitations.  They struggled to relax their limbs onto the horse’s back, but once in place, muscles finally cooperating, they never wanted to leave.  One Down’s Syndrome child, so excited to sit on a horse for the first time, couldn’t stop hugging her neck and kissing her mane.  He didn’t even want to sit upright because it would mean losing the hug that meant everything to him.

Our mares were very patient with the process, as we gave them regular breaks.  They enjoyed the hugs and kisses given so freely, and blew back plenty of their own.

Within our rapidly urbanizing and risk-averse society, our children are losing any direct connection with larger animals aside from the typical house dog or cat.   As long as we are able to do this, we need to offer this opportunity, brief as it is, to hundreds of children during fair week.  They need to feel the warmth of the horse’s muzzle, the expansion of their ribs with each breath, the flicker of the skin when touched lightly.  They need to know the respect and honor owed to these animals who have adapted to life with humans, to serve us and work alongside us.

The spark in these children’s eyes keeps the fire from going out for me.   The memory of Haflingers lingers.  There will always be good reason to keep coming back.

It’s “Fair Thee Well” Time Again…

Jessie, Kelsey and Chesna bowing during their grandstand performance

It is Fair time again, a traditional August activity I’ve cherished most of my life, and we celebrate the Centennial of the Northwest Washington Fair this week.  As I worked today preparing our horses’ stalls at the Lynden fairgrounds for moving in our Haflingers tomorrow, I could remember being at this Fair not quite fifty years ago, tagging along with my father as he did his job supervising FFA teachers in the region.   Although he had taken a state job in Olympia with the Department of Agriculture, he was responsible for the Future Farmers of America programs and teaching in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and Snohomish Counties, so made regular visits to all the high schools.   He never missed any of the county fairs as that was the place the FFA students competed, learned, judged and developed their skills and character.  I came along because I loved going anywhere with my dad that had to do with animals, and I absolutely loved the fairs.  The Lynden Fair, in particular, was my favorite because it was one fair that my dad felt safe about my taking off and exploring on my own.     Hanging out in the cow barns was okay, but the fair was a contained microcosm of the wider world, in my view, and I wanted to absorb every bit of it.   There were kitchens with competitive food preparation, table settings and an array of preserves and desserts.   There was the sewing building with girls busy at handwork and modeling their designs.  There were Grange displays artfully designed into intricate maps with positive messages about farming and community.  There were rows and rows of flowers, each bloom more fantastic than the last.  There were huge pumpkins, and perfect ears of corn and collections of kewpie and Barbie dolls.  There were intricate quilts and embroidery and tatting.   I watched children show their poultry and rabbits, learned about all the different breeds of sheep and pigs, and observed what it took to be a gracious winner and loser.

By the time I was eleven, I had the good fortune to win a weanling colt in a radio essay contest and part of the commitment the winner had to make was to join 4H and participate in the Thurston County Fair.  This was a dream come true for a kid who considered sawdust a favored brand of perfume.   I accepted the responsibility of not only training and preparing my horse, but learned how to be a part of a club with shared duties, including getting up at 5 AM to get to the fairgrounds in time for the morning cleaning.

My husband-to-be had no idea what life-long commitment he was making when he agreed to tag along as one of a group of friends I invited to go to the fair together, and after that day spent riding the ferris wheel, talking about our shared farming backgrounds and simply getting to know each other, we were together forever.  I don’t think we’ve missed a fair in thirty years, and for eighteen of those, we have become the exhibitors, watching fair-goers pass by as we dwell long hours in the noisy, smelly, bright and bold community that forms for one week of the year.

It begins again this week,  as we move in, settle our horses, and get back into the early to rise, late to bed routine.   Over the years, our children and their friends have taken the bulk of the responsibility so we pop in and out as we need to.    I’ll breathe deeply of the smell of sawdust, horse sweat, corndogs and curly fries and remember the freedom it represented for an eight year old girl allowed to explore a safe and fascinating world all on her own.  I’m still exploring, seeing with the eyes of an eight year old now housed in a fifty six year old body.

And that’s what brings me back, year after year.

A Little Splash in the Night

Twelve years ago we were in the middle of a hot August like this one.  With no air conditioning then, as now, we use fans, open windows, and at night hope for comfort from any cooling breeze drifting through the curtains. Sleep is elusive when one is very busy sweating.

I remember waking suddenly from a fitful sleep in the dark of night, startled by a sound I could not readily identify.  I lay still, my eyes wide open staring into the black space of our bedroom, discerning the sound of intermittent splashing in the adjacent bathroom. What the heck?

Our five year old daughter’s bedroom was the next room in the hallway on the other side of the bathroom.  I tentatively called out her name, wondering what she could possibly be doing in the middle of the night, making splashing noises in the bathroom.

No answer.  More splashing.

Now I was worried.  I got up, walked into the hallway, peered into the dark bathroom, unable to see anything amiss.  I flipped on the light switch.  As my eyes tried to adjust to the sudden illumination, I was able to see one thing that most definitely did not belong in this picture:  a rat’s hind end and long tail disappearing back down into the toilet.    I gasped, shut the bathroom door quickly and gathered my wits.   There is nothing that will turn one’s stomach quite like seeing a rat in a place it absolutely should not be.

I checked my daughter’s room, flipped the light on quickly to scan the floor and her bed, and she was soundly sleeping and all seemed fine.  I shut off her light and shut her door quietly.

Then I woke the man of the house, the only reasonable thing to do in such a situation.

I’m not sure he believed me.  Maybe I had only imagined I’d seen a rat?  Maybe it was all a dream?  Maybe the heat was getting to me?

I went and got a broom and handed it to him.  He opened the door to the bathroom a crack, and saw little puddles on the bathroom floor and dirty wet marks on the toilet seat.   He quickly closed the door again and looked at me.  There definitely had been a grimy little something in that bathroom.  But where was it now??

He opened the door again and went in, getting the broom handle ready to clobber the varmint.  He peeked into the toilet and there was nothing to be found except some scummy debris floating in the water and scattered on the seat.  He flushed.  He flushed again.  Nothing.

It was really hard to believe that a rat would voluntarily dive back into a toilet bowl and swim into the pipes …. unless it was headed for another toilet bowl.  We quickly closed the toilet lid, piled books on top and went to check the other bathrooms–no signs of disturbance, wet paw prints or other ratty evidence of invasion.

There is little rational thinking that goes on in the middle of the night when a rat has swum up your pipes into a toilet.   I admit to being a little emotional.  That’s when we went for the bleach and poured a gallon down each toilet bowl, flushing a dozen times each, thoroughly disrupting all the healthy bacterial flora in our septic drain field.  It did make me feel better momentarily.    We closed all the toilet lids, closed all the bathroom doors and didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.  When we inspected the toilets in the morning, one of the other toilets had been “visited” as well, but with the lid shut, the rat had disappeared back down the pipe.

In the morning, we coolly told lies to our three children.  We told them two of our toilets were plugged up and they had to use one only, and always put the lid down afterward.  We decided if we told them about a rat in the bowl, they would never feel safe about sitting on the toilet again.   There is the potential of a real psychological PTSD (post-toileting stress disorder) entity.   I certainly didn’t feel safe about sitting on the toilet and kept furtively looking down, which doesn’t make for a very relaxed bathroom visit.   It can be positively constipating.

We did a search under the house, around the house, trying to figure out where rats could have found access to our septic system.  Finally, we discovered that a pipe previously connecting the septic drain field to our temporary single-wide trailer living quarters during our major farm house remodel the previous year had never been completely sealed off when the trailer was removed.  It was an open invitation to rodents seeking a cool dark (and wet) place to hide.

It wasn’t the end of our rat woes, but it was the last time they breached our plumbing.  We later had a major invasion of our barns, requiring the services of expert exterminators and super duper cat defense.    I’m proud to say I’ve not seen evidence of rats or their homely furry selves for years now.

We never told anyone about this little episode.   In fact,  our children still think we had sudden massive toilet failure at our house twelve years ago.

Until now.  Now they know the ugly little truth…

Naomi Nye’s “Boy and Egg”

Boy and Egg

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.

Precipilicity and Desolaration

People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar disorders that I’m formally proposing for the next version of the diagnostic psychiatric manual:  we don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining.  Summer can be a very difficult time for us.

In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time.  July and August yields six to eight weeks of dusty paths, dried up creeks and wilting greenery.  We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright with blue skies, start to look longingly at accumulating clouds,  and get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.

It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this.  It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights.   In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is==the more doldrums I feel:  desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure).   The grayer the day, the wetter the sky==a lightening of the heart and the spirit:  precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).

Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer.  It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.

So I’m feeling profound relief today, thank you.  There was the incredible and undeniable sound of raindrops outside the window when I woke up this morning.  There was no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays.   There was the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.  I only needed a short nap to be able to cope with the day, and when I did venture out in the middle of some really good showers, the garden and I seem much fresher from our drippy dousing.

I know I’m not alone in this disorder.  Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company.  To complain about sunny days would be meteorologically incorrect.  It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this together.

Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:

“My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.”

And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:

“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’
And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.