“Why, what’s the matter, That you have such a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?” – William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
January was particularly dark and dank, especially last night as the month wrapped up with a deluge, flooding numerous roads in our rural county. The beginning of February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us. Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.
I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine. The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in, not understanding that the alternative is to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind. To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight. The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating. I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.
It happened today. Dawn broke bright and blinding and I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the eastern light, soaking up all I could. It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.
A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness. I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow. Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines.
It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead, now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile. I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.
I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone, I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come. What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal, I can do it for another.
We never know if the turn is into the home stretch. We call it that—a stretch of place and time—with vision of straining, racing. We acknowledge each turn with cheers though we don’t know how many laps remain. But we can hope the course leads on far and clear while the horses have strength and balance on their lean legs, fine-tuned muscles, desire for the length of the run. Some may find the year smooth, others stumble at obstacles along the way. We never know if the finish line will be reached after faltering, slowing, or in mid-stride, leaping forward. ~Judy Ray, “Turning of the Year”
I’m well along on this journey, yet still feeling tethered to the starting gate. I’m testing how far the residual connection to beginning will stretch; there is still a strong tug to return back to how things were, like a bungee cord at the limits of its capacity.
Yet there is also an inexorable pull to destinations ahead. I know what once was a vital conduit to the past is withering with age, so I must move forward, unsure what is around the bend.
It can be turbulent out there without former ties and tethers as anchors in the storm. It is possible I will lose my balance, stumble and fall and end up limping the rest of the way.
When I hear the call of a new year, I know it is time to simply face the wind and surge ahead to what is coming next, no matter what it may be. I can choose to struggle along, worried and anxious about the unknown, or I can leap ahead at a skip and jump, jubilant, eager, ready, feeling nearly weightless in my anticipation of a joyful finish line.
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty four years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
…the golden hour of the clock of the year. Everything that can run to fruit has already done so: round apples, oval plums, bottom-heavy pears, black walnuts and hickory nuts annealed in their shells, the woodchuck with his overcoat of fat. Flowers that were once bright as a box of crayons are now seed heads and thistle down. All the feathery grasses shine in the slanted light. It’s time to bring in the lawn chairs and wind chimes, time to draw the drapes against the wind, time to hunker down. Summer’s fruits are preserved in syrup, but nothing can stopper time. No way to seal it in wax or amber; it slides though our hands like a rope of silk. At night, the moon’s restless searchlight sweeps across the sky. ~Barbara Crooker “And Now it’s October” from Small Rain.
…but I do try to stopper time. I try every day not to suspend it or render it frozen, but like summer flower and fruit that withers, to preserve any sweet moment for sampling through stored words or pictures in the midst of my days of winter. I roll it around on my tongue, its heady fragrance becoming today’s lyrical shared moment, unstoppered, perpetual and always intoxicating.
I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure. Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.
As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days. Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally. As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart. I was miserable with regrets. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group, my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.
My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure. Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.
“You know, none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now. People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country, a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom. So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy. You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us. So quit being upset about what you can’t change. There’s too much you can still do for us.”
During tough times which still come often in my professional life, Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way. She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.
Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.
Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go. Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end. Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.
Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here. And we all had to let her go.
Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.
You were so right, Jenny. No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.
And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.