2,900 Miles From Home

Albert

Albert, May 30, 2013

My sister recently reminded me that after our grammy died in 2007, I didn’t write for a while, either. She’s right about that. Then, I withdrew to my garden and spent the summer weeding in my nightgown.

I miss my pony and think about him every day and night. But, it’s awesome to consider the outpouring of support from people who knew and loved this horse. Some of them for longer than I knew him.

People have sent embroidered pillows, bright flowers, uplifting cards, and generous donations to horse research and rescue charities. Friends offered to hold a wake for Albert and make a video tribute of his life. Folks prayed for and honored him in some incredible ways. So many good people called and emailed and shared in the joy of his life. Hundreds of people.

I like that a lot better than weeding in the garden alone. Though, I reckon each response is valid and healing.

When Albert passed away, just about three weeks ago now, I immediately left town for a business trip to Portland, which brought me home ten days later via Oakland and Phoenix.

While I was out West, during the week after Albert’s passing, my colleagues and family members let me cry and tell them about how much this horse has meant to me and my family. Folks back East checked on me by phone, listening while I recounted his courage and resolve.

In Portland, I even had help plotting a goofy memorial of tying up a stuffed pony to a historic horse hitch in Albert’s honor.

Old horse hitch, Portland, Oregon

Old horse hitch, Portland, Oregon

I didn’t just make this idea up. Portland is an enchanted city. There are all sorts of magical things to discover in the streets of Portland, such as Mill Ends Park, the world’s smallest park .

Admiring Mill Ends Park in Portland

Admiring Mill Ends Park in Portland

And, the Portland Pony Project.

So…when in Rome.

pretty pony

Pretty Pony at 10th and Stark, Portland

The afternoon that I hitched up this pretty pony, I offered up a silent thanksgiving for Albert and knelt to take a photo. As I stood up to leave, from behind me a man asked, “Do you mind if I take a picture, too? We have four at home.”

“Of course!” I tried to sound, I don’t know, extra chipper. “I have two horses!” Then, I burst into tears. “Well, not anymore. My old horse died the day before I came out here. I live in Virginia.”

His eyes welled up, too. “We have a thirty year old Arabian mare at home. We’re going to euthanize her this weekend.”

And, now, we both stood at 10th and Stark, crying in the sunshine.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I told him. “My horse, Albert, was almost thirty.”

He said, “She’s completely blind. Our mare.”

I nodded. “Albert was blind.”

So, us two strangers stood there taking pictures of a stuffed pony that I bought at Powell’s. We talked about Albert and talked about his mare, Kentucky. She was the first horse that his sixteen year old son ever rode.

And, that’s it. No big revelation. Except  2,900 miles from home when I was feeling so sad, I met a nice man named Ed, who loved his horse as much as I loved mine. And, he knew the day had arrived. Time to thank her for her service and let her go. And, time to remember.

Blue Eyes

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The weather on Sunday was just right for lingering at the corner stall. And for offering one, two, three peppermint treats and for letting my horse lick peppermint sprinkles from my palm. He was clean, still damp from his first spring bath, and with a belly full of clover, chickweed, and dandelion leaves. Thick crumbs of his white winter coat traced our path from the crossties to his corner stall.

The weather on Sunday was just right for facing the yard. Like always, I waited for him to turn away, nose put to corner. His way of good-bye. Only, he lingered, too, on Sunday. We watched the field, the woods, and the mares way down yonder, across the road nearly to the horizon. A yellow tiger swallowtail lit along the fence and all along the yard.

I leaned my back against his stall gate on the side of his good eye, his only eye. Good because it’s still in its socket, though the midnight blue iris lets nothing in. He only sees what he remembers or imagines. So, I stood there with him, and he tilted his good blind eye close to me. His only eye.

What did he see?

I saw my citrus shirt and my cheeks filled with joy and my eyes made small by my reflected grin. I stood, smiling in the light he remembered and imagined. My heart hurt. My chest hurt. Like when I held my newborn daughter and looked into her mountain blue eyes. Like when my dying grammy held me, and I looked into her radiant blue eyes. Like that time I held my pointer out to a dragonfly and said out loud, “Hop up here on my finger. Let me look into your turquoise eyes.” And that bug prayed on my finger for a long time.

So, we turned toward the butterflies and killdeer. While the sunlight shifted lemon to amber, we faced the mare field. My blind horse rested his head on my shoulder. And, he fell asleep there on me, for a good long time.

Horse Therapy

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Our horse Albert spent sixteen years as a school horse in therapeutic riding programs here in Virginia. Sometimes, I’d just go out to the barn and look at him working. His heart and focus and concentration during therapeutic lessons inspired me to write Chancey.

The amazing thing is that there are hundreds..maybe even thousands of horses working in therapeutic settings all over the world. Of course, if you love horses and have one or two in your life you probably agree with me that EVERY minute spent with a horse is therapeutic in one way or another. Even on those days when my will and Albert’s will diverge, there is something honest in that interaction that holds me accountable to being aware and present to myself and to him.

Here’s another inspiring story about the therapeutic impact of the horse-human relationship. There are so many more stories like this; I love sharing them with you when I find them. This story highlights the Rose of Sharon Equestrian School in Maryland.

Enjoy:

http://www.abc2news.com/video/videoplayer.swf?dppversion=16926

For more information about therapeutic riding visit PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International)

2011: A Wonderful Life

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Here’s a look back on 2011, a really great year for my family and me. Bubba started a new job a year ago and every day we’re thankful that he has a job he enjoys. This year I got to go to Houston with my mom and my cousin to watch our VCU Rams play in the Final Four. My daughter graduated high school, started college (go Rams!), got a job, and is really making a wonderful life of her own.

I traveled to San Francisco and Arizona for work and writing and visiting. Home is definitely here in Richmond with our family and friends. Home is wherever and whenever I’m with my West Coast family, too. I also spent some great days with Judith and dear friends in Oak Island, NC.

Bubba and I worked lots of good hours in our garden and good hours planning our garden for 2012. After three years of cultivating a purple leaf coneflower border, we’re about there. Now for the Baptisia! Oh, and also, I want a Lewis and Clark garden. I’m not sure how this will work out. Maybe I’ll fill our entire garden space with plants introduced by the Corps of Discovery.

2011 was a really awesome writing year. I finally realized that I love the research and reflection every bit as much as the creating and editing. I finished up my manuscript for a new book that will come out in 2012 called Come August, Come Freedom about the blacksmith, Gabriel. More than any other, this book changed who I am and who I hope to be. I also wrote my first short story since 5th grade – about the river, of course. And visited so many schools! One highlight was participating in Longwood University’s Summer Literacy Institute, where I met some great writers and lots of inspiring librarians. Oh, and in the fall, reading with some rockin’ amazing women at artist Susan Singer’s Beyond Barbie series. And writing with middle school students at Carver and Midlo, mmmm-mmmm, mighty fun!

Last year I enjoyed writing retreats at Richmond Hill with poet, Cheryl Pallant and at The Porches, with good friends. Two enchanting spaces conducive to creating and quieting. When I couldn’t get away, writing with Valley Haggard was its own mini weekly writing retreat.

We moved our horses to Campbell Springs Farm, like, a day before Hurricane Irene! Albert and Latte have settled in nicely. We found a silver lining of living without power for nine days post-Irene: evenings of ice cream and conversation with Bubba’s parents, a tradition we’ll continue until McDonald’s stops selling $1 caramel sundaes.

There wasn’t anything wildly spectacular about 2011 except for everything about it. All the regular, every day moments that make life good: fixing tacos with my goddaughter, working cows with three handsome men, sharing meals and manuscripts with my beautiful friends, looking for bufflehead and bald eagle on the river, watching a cicada molt, cooking with Judith and Bub, revising and revising with my dog and a fire, taking our sweet nephew to his first bball game. And even on days of sorrow or uncertainty, smelling Grammy’s roses or my Winter Daphne and remembering Shelley. If Winter’s here, can spring be far behind?

My plan for 2012? More.

 2012 Plan

My plan for 2012

Great Books for Horse Lovers

Have you discovered this wonderful website, Great Horse Books for Horse Lovers, yet? Here, Vanessa Wright has curated one of the most comprehensive, helpful, and interesting online collections of horse books. You’ll want to bookmark Great Books for Horse Lovers and Vanessa’s other project, The Literary Horse, so you can easily return and explore the resources there. Whether you crave fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, instructional, or children’s books, Vanessa’s site will guide you to some great titles.

I’m so grateful that she has included Chancey in her collection. Thank you, Great Books for Horse Lovers!

Great Books for Horse Lovers: Fire Star: An Interview with Gigi Amateau about Chancey of the Maury River.

On Courage

Judith and Starry Night, 2008

Tomorrow I’ll drive my daughter and her good friend to riding camp in Vermont. Judith loves Vermont; she adores her friend. Of course, they will have a fantastic week. Judith would rather spend her days and nights at the barn than at a mall or a movie. At camp, they’ll do horse yoga (!), ride cross country and stadium jumping and flat and trail and, probably, the whole gaggle of them will sneak around looking for cell phone service on rocks and under bushes.

I’ll just miss her. And, plus, I leave for California for a week the day she returns.

She went to this same camp a few years ago and grew so much in her riding and in herself. Each girl cares for and rides one horse during camp. Last time, Judith paired up with Starry Night, a sweet bay mare. There were times during camp when Judith and Starry needed courage for one thing or another. I am surprised to find that tonight I need courage for the two weeks without my girl. Am I getting to be a big baby?

I just worry. She’s seventeen and that’s pretty near grown. Will she eat enough? Will she keep hydrated? Will she stay safe? Will she be all right?

Sometimes, I am scared to leave someone I love or let go for them to leave me. There’s always that possibility. I think that’s it. I have never said it before, but there is always that little fear of no returning. You know, if one of us doesn’t come back. That fear flares up in me now and again. Like when Bubba leaves for work or Judith for school and I’m already in the zone, some mornings I just nod and mumble, “love you, too.” Then, the door closes and my heart calls, “Wait! Come back! I mean, I REALLY love you. Like I love belonging with you.”

So. Courage is a practice, too, huh?

I remember when Judith was eight years old and Albert came to the barn where we were riding. He had a reputation, shall we say. A bad-boy, gelded late. A regular equine Fonzarelli. But, right from the start Albert and Judith made each other happy. They were so intent on each other that I didn’t even get a vet check until after he joined us, because it wouldn’t have mattered what the vet found. Albert had found Judith and that was the beginning. When the vet came out post-purchase and discovered the cancer in his eyes, well, that took courage all around. Albert’s courage practice goes way deep.

Judith and Albert on a hunter pace in Lexington.

Judith and I have these phrases we offer each other whenever one or the other of us needs to power up our courage:

  • Dig Deep!
  • We’re strong; all the women in our family are strong!
  • It takes guts and it takes determination. You can do it!
  • I’m here for you, darling.
  • and when courage feels especially out of reach, “Here. Take my angel. I don’t need her today.”

Tonight, Bubba and I went out to see Albert to shed him out a little. He really holds onto his coat these days. Okay. Really, we went to see him because he knows my girl about as good as I do, and I just needed to breathe him in and remember that she is who she is because of Albert. She’s a good little rider. She’s a gal who grew up with an Appy for God’s sake. Independent. Stubborn. Capable. Loyal. True as they come.

Gelding field in Vermont