Monthly Archives: August 2016

runaway horse

I’ve been learning Horse — the language. One of the women who boards her horse at this ramshackle ranch is teaching me Equus. Well, she and Jake, her horse, are.

I’ve had two lessons already, both longer than I thought my brain could stand. Learning how to communicate with anyone is tricky, let alone someone of a different species. Intention is 90% of it. Focus, clarity, and confidence make up the rest.

Sunny is the palomino Tennessee Walker I’ve been feeding, daily. I also groom and walk him as time permits. Yesterday felt like a walking day, so I grabbed his halter and went out to the pasture to see if he agreed. He did, initially.

We used to walk in the arena, but the last few times I thought he might like a roomier amble. So I slid the halter over his blonde nose, held the rope loosely in both hands, and proceeded along the fence line of his pasture.

The idea of snakes entered my head. “I’ll keep an eye out, Sunny. I’m looking for them.” We continued and made one full sweep of the area.

We took a small break, and I gave him some cut up carrots. “Let’s try the opposite direction this time, babe,” I said. This go-round started out fine, as before, but as we approached the northeast corner, he spooked. Took off at a run. Galloped back to the southwest corner, his safety zone.

Luckily, I dropped the rope immediately. My heart was pounding, but no rope burns. I stood still, and watched him gallop for several minutes, dragging the rope. I worried that he’d tread on it and trip, hurt himself, but he didn’t.

Eventually, he slowed down. Eventually he stopped. I waited a bit more ’til my own pulse was slower, then calmly walked toward him.

“You’re okay,” I said. “You’re fine. You’re okay. Everything is okay.” I kept up the soothing tone and words as I approached and petted his neck. Reached up slowly and calmly, undid the knot by his cheek, and slid the halter off his nose. Patted him. “You’re okay. I am so sorry. We will never walk that stupid pasture again.”

Snakes. I didn’t see any, but it was a hot August day, and the sandy chaparral has tall weeds and short shrubs that are perfect hiding places for snakes. And I had noticed, when we walked the pasture before, that certain parts of it made him nervous. I thought it was proximity to the road and cars.

“You’re right,” I told Sunny, “snakes are quick. No way could I see them in time. I was foolish to try to do so. It won’t happen again. We will not walk in here again. And yes, I know I promised you an ocean ride and that hasn’t happened. But I know it will happen for you. Not with me, probably, but it will happen.”

I gave him some carrots and climbed through the fence out of the pasture and into the arena. Where we’d first learned to walk together. Also a scary time, but on my end, not his. Nothing like walking with a thousand pound animal to make you realize how fragile you are.

This afternoon, after I fed Sunny his alfalfa dinner, his “owner” turned up. A real, live rodeo cowboy. He’s moving Sunny down the dune to another ranch. I won’t get to feed him anymore. Or have to, depending on your point of view. 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. might seem a little strange for a while.

I did say good-bye though. After the cowboy jumped on Sunny’s back, they walked over to the fence where I was standing. “Good-bye sweetheart,” I said, and rubbed the place on his forehead that he loves. “Good-bye.”

Then I opened the gate for them to ride through, and opened the next one. Closed the gates behind them.

The last I saw of Sunny, he was heading for the ocean. As promised.
Yeah baby, yeah baby, baby baby yeah. Yeah baby, yeah baby, baby baby yeah.

Resting after Equus lesson two, photo by James Dickens.
Resting after learning and feeding horses. Photo by James Dickens.

re(tern) to happiness

The Groucho Terns are back!

This morning, on my regular ocean amble, what did my wondering ears apprehend? The familiar chatter of a flock of terns! And not just any terns, no! My terns!

Well, they are probably Elegants, instead of my old Hermosa friends, the Royals. I couldn’t get close enough to see. But the Groucho Marx walk was back, along with the cigar-like beak and black bushy “eyebrows.”

Oh! the joy!

I don’t know why certain things bring me happiness, and others do not. It seems to be highly specific. Horses, for example, are a guaranteed joy-generator.

Two weeks after I began hands-on learning about horses, the lessons abruptly stopped. My teacher became ill and moved away, suddenly. Day after day, at six o’clock, I got dressed in my Levi’s and horse hoodie, only to be told that, “Barbara’s still under the weather. She won’t be here tonight.”

I was furious.
Just as I suspected, happiness can’t be trusted. What an idiot I am to expect it to last!

Yes, I was sorry she was ill. It happens. I understand that.
What doesn’t happen very often for me is joy. I had been so happy with Sunny that I couldn’t sleep. Nothing bothered me. Work was a breeze. My family’s bizarre behavior no longer mattered, at least not as much.

I was happy. An unfamiliar feeling.

A week goes by. Still no Barbara. So I didn’t visit Sunny. He wasn’t “mine.” I didn’t know if his “owner” would like a newbie hanging around. And I was scared to ask the stable owner.

I continue to work and eat and go to the ocean. I pretend (to myself) that I am fine. But I am easily irritated. And every time I do the laundry, the machine stops during the spin cycle. It is unbalanced. Each time, I open the lid and rearrange the clothes, evenly. Last night it stopped twice. “What the–?”

I was unbalanced. I had let happiness slide away. I live right next to a stable full of horses. Surely I could visit them?

I put on my Levi’s and an already dirty sweater (dusty creatures, horses). I cut up an apple, and went out to ask if I could feed them.

“Who?” said the stable owner, P.

“All of them,” I said.

“Not Magic,” she said, “no sweets for Magic. And you’ll have to ask about Jake.” She nodded down to where Devon was feeding Jake in his corral. Then she called down to Susan, who’d brought old Cisco out of his paddock. “Can Cisco have apples? small ones?”

Susan said yes. “He doesn’t really chew,” she said, “not enough teeth.”

And then!

P said she didn’t know when or if Barbara would be back, but I could brush and walk Sunny, “if you feel comfortable with that?”

“Yes!” I said, “thank you!”

Happiness floated me down through the stable, dispensing apple bits to Shadow and Kady. I grabbed the pink rope halter on the way, and stopped to talk to Devon and meet Jake.

“You can give him anything,” she said, “apples, carrots, he loves ’em.”

I had not even known how sad I was until I had permission to visit Sunny again. Fear had kept me away from a stable full of friends.

Pulling out the ice-aka-storage chest from under the mounting block, I retrieved two brushes, dumped most of the apple bits in a helmet, closed the lid, and slid through the fence into Sunny’s corral.

It had not been a fluke or a dream. He still listened to me, even without Barbara, and stood while I brushed him. He waited as I put the halter on him, and opened the gate. Then we both walked into the arena, just like old times. Around and around we went, looking at Magic and Jetson and Jake and Shadow. Bunnies and vultures, ground squirrels and barn swallows. Around and around and around, as the sun went down.


think positive

July 2013 …

Trying to find a place where I could breathe and rest was taking too much energy. I stopped searching for a hotel or motel room that wouldn’t induce headaches and nausea. I had woken up too many times in the middle of the night with my head on fire and a burning throat, desperate for air.

But I could breathe, sort of, in the car.

Back at Fred Meyer, I bought bedding: a big brown comforter, soft warm blankets in shades of lavender, a small pillow to match. What else does one need for car camping? A plum colored hand towel and wash cloth; a fork, knife, and spoon; a thermos. Groceries.

In the soup aisle, I could not tear my eyes away from the box of beef broth on the bottom shelf. Pacific brand. Organic. I tried to talk myself out of it, but my body would not move until I put the box in the cart. Obviously, I needed protein. Fast. I found Tiger Milk bars on another aisle and grabbed a box of the extra peanut butter flavor. Packets of Emergen-C (powdered vitamin C) followed suit. Then Kava Kava tea for stress relief. Right.

A blank journal with a yellowish cover grabbed my attention. On the front were the words:

think positive
you are master of your own destiny

The color of the inside cover matched the biggest new blanket — chocolate.

Back in Olympia, when all this started going down — the difficulty breathing, the heart palpitations, the mold-induced-asthma diagnosis — my father invited me to his house in northern California, “for a respite.” Eventually I agreed, which is why I was traveling south. Respite was exactly what I needed. A place to take a deep breath, if possible, and assess the situation. I hadn’t slept for more than 30 minutes at a time for more than a week. I was afraid I would die in my sleep. Asphyxiate.

The first night in Florence was okay, but I was in a busy part of town. The tourists looked at me funny in the morning when I unwrapped the blankets and climbed out of my car to find a bathroom. The next night I attempted to sleep on a residential side street. But coastal Oregon is damp. And round about 4 a.m. the sprinklers went on and the air became damper. I tried to walk it out, but I still couldn’t catch a good breath.

Throughout this travail, I talked to myself constantly in a reassuring tone. “You are breathing, yes? Not as deeply as you’d like, but you are receiving some air. I know it’s hard, sweetheart. Just in, and out. That’s right. In, and out. Good job. In, and out. You can do it.”

Walking down the dark Florence street, breathing — shallowly yes, but breathing — I suddenly felt Emmett beside me. A big black Malamute mix with a huge plumy tail, we had traveled together through snow and rain and sun for six years. Through forests, on beaches, in boats. He finally left his cancerous body on New Year’s Eve 2007. But here he was, next to me. The comfort was visceral.

Some folks find Jesus or Buddha or Quan Yin in times of trouble, or get religion in other ways. I found Emmett, or rather, he found me — back in 2001, and now here in 2013. Tears of relief flowed down my face.

I returned to the Jetta. On a small flap on the outside of my new journal, I wrote:

Book 1: Project Susie

(My family calls me Susie.)

I need to dry out, I thought. This damp air is not helping. I need to go inland. Back on the same road where I’d met the local EMTs two days earlier — State Highway 126 — I headed east. Eugene, Oregon: 62 miles.

As I drove I sang a new song:
Project Susie
Project Susie
Help me out
Help me out.



Three years ago …

After spending a scary, sleepless night in a tiny cottage by the ocean in Westport, I drove slowly down the coast, trying to reach my father in northern California.

Pumped up on synthetic adrenaline (prescribed by a could-barely-breathe-herself doctor who diagnosed me with toxic-mold-induced asthma), full-body hot flashes surged through me on an hourly basis. Sweating, crying, praying, driving, I continued south as best I could.

The Interstate was not an option — way too much traffic and speed. I ended up on winding coastal roads, late at night. Cold. Still wearing the cotton pants and cambric shirt a neighbor had given me, and hot pink Crocs, no socks. Every time I stopped to check out a hotel or motel, the industrial cleaners they used in the rooms nauseated me. My senses — all of them — were in overdrive.

Exhausted and terrified in Florence, Oregon, I called 911, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” The EMT’s arrived quickly. One kind-faced man held my hand while others attached monitors to various parts of my body. Another advised me to stop taking the Albuterol. I had already done so, but it would take awhile for it to work its way out of my system. Their machines said that my heart was fine, just battered. Yeah.

After my breathing and pulse returned to a more normal rhythm, the patiently efficient EMT’s bid me goodbye. I started the car, turned it around, and headed into town. It was morning.

A huge Fred Meyer sign rose up on the right. A familiar sight! I had a Fred Meyer card! A chain store throughout the Pacific Northwest, I shopped there regularly for food and sundries. I turned into the parking lot.

Once inside, I headed for the clothing department. I needed warm shoes, and clothes that fit my swollen body. Long-time Queen of the FreeStore, for the first time in years I bought brand-new clothes: a pink and black sports cami, a hot pink cotton t-shirt, a long black stretchy skirt, grey fake sheepskin boots, rainbow colored socks, a lime green knee-length raincoat. I tried everything on in a stinky fitting room, and threw away the clothes I came in with.

“Lip balm?” I asked the compassionately helpful saleslady. She led me to another area, health and beauty, and found a tinted balm in a pretty pinky-brown shade.

“This will look good on you,” she said. I put it in the shopping basket.

On the way to the check-out stand, a flash of turquoise caught my eye: a small sequined purse, with a heart-shaped clasp. Perfect for the credit cards I’d been carrying in a brown paper bag. (Unsure what was moldy and what was not, I left everything behind except my computer. I was hoping to keep my job.)

The turquoise said, “You are still an ARTIST.”
The sequins said, “You are NOT DEAD.”
The heart said, “You are LOVABLE.”

I slung it over my shoulder. Let the healing begin.


Oh, I need the Ocean!

I can see the sea from my new studio.
Cue delighted laughter.

To get to the sea, I hike down through state park dunes, clocking lizards, buzzards, and bunnies on the way. Sometimes humans on horses pass me, or the ranger on his ATV. Most of the time I’m the solitary human, looking at fuchsia sand verbena, dunedelions (like dandelions, but in sand), sage, and chamise. Chaparral country. Many times it’s foggy here, so I don’t see the sea until I’m almost upon it.

My studio window faces west, so, barring fog, I can catch the sunset every night.
Cue delighted laughter again.

“We’ve got whales!” says my landlady, “Elizabeth, we’ve got whales!”

Sure enough, I spot several spouts mid-way to the horizon.

In case you’re becoming too jealous, there are also rattlesnakes, poison oak, and unexploded ordnance leftover from the 1940’s when the army used the land for training.

But my downstairs neighbor plays the trumpet well, another neighbor surfs, and of course there are the horses: Sunny, Shadow, Cisco, Kady, Magic, Jetson.

Last night my riding teacher was “under the weather,” so our lesson was canceled.
Cue disappointed, catastrophic thinking. I’ll never ride again!

I chopped up carrots anyway, and took them down to the stable. Sunny gets most of them, but I treat the others on the way to and fro his paddock. I’m especially enamored of Shadow, a gorgeous cream and chocolate Paint.

“Barbara’s sick,” I tell Sunny, “no play today.” He’s a good listener, even after the carrots are history. I brush his coat and mane, then say good-night.

Three years ago, I left Olympia and drove straight to the ocean. I was dying of toxic mold exposure, and could barely breathe. My liver was inflamed, my kidneys were stressed. I left everything behind, even the stuffed dog that belonged to my (dead) brother. The only thought that made any sense in my be-fogged brain was ocean ocean ocean. Ocean ocean ocean. I don’t want to die inland. I need the ocean ocean ocean. Please god, help me get to the Ocean.

I sang and chanted in the car, as best I could, making a mantra of ocean ocean ocean. I made it to the Pacific, 75 miles away.

“The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea,” wrote Isak Dinesen.

She is correct.

After three years of living as close to the ocean as I can get, even if that means the car, I can breathe. My lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, brain, heart — all systems are go.

And so I do. Into the H2O. The Ocean. The Healer. Home.

I rode a horse today, oh yeah

“Your butt is your best weapon,” says Barbara.

I am at Sunny’s butt, shampooing his dirty blonde tail. A new friend, Sunny is a palomino Tennessee Walker. My butt is sideways against his flank. When he moves, I move. I love leaning against him.

“You can’t hurt him,” says Barbara, “he’s a thousand pounds.”

After several applications of shampoo and Comet, his tail is flaxen. Barbara leads him back to the arena, while I get the bareback pad from the tack room.

Barbara walks him first. At 5’4″ it’s hard for her to keep up with Sunny’s long legs. She leads him back to the mounting block and hands me the halter while she puts on a helmet.

“Good Sunny,” I say, “good horse.” I pat his long strong golden neck.

Known as Carrot Girl among the equine folk, today I forgot them. Too excited for vegetables, I guess.

On Sunny, 80-year-old Barbara is grace in action. They are in sync, in accord, in time, in rhythm — all of it. I could watch them for hours, but Barbara tires before Sunny does, so I stand at his head while she dismounts. “Good Sunny,” I say, “good handsome horse.”

My turn to lead him around the arena, first in circles one way, then the other. “Whoa,” I say at random places and times, and Sunny always stops immediately. Little kiss-kiss sounds move him forward again.

Back at the mounting block, I am now confident enough to sling a leg over him without much ado. We are getting used to each other, the three of us.

Once I’m settled, Barbara walks him forward. I grab a handful of mane.

I’ve had two lessons to date, both of which entailed me walking Sunny around the arena on a halter, then sitting on him for a bit. Get-acquainted-time. Fine by me. I moved to SLO County for a reason: to slo-o-o-o-ow dow-ow-wn. This is the first time Sunny has actually moved anywhere while I sat on him.

Barbara suddenly remembers this and stops. “I’m so sorry!” she says, “You looked so natural up there; I automatically went into Pony Camp mode.” A horseback rider since age seven, she ran Pony Camps for years, for children of all different abilities.

“Don’t be sorry,” I say, “I love it!” And I do. Scared? Yes: Sunny is tall, so I am high off the ground. Excited? Yes: I am actually riding! Finally! But I don’t want to tire Barbara. “How are you doing?”

“I’m great!” she says. We exchange grins, and move forward.

When I notice that my thighs are trembling with fatigue, I suggest we go back to the block. After I dismount I stay close to Sunny, petting and patting and loving on him. “Good Sunny. Good beautiful horse. Good handsome patient horse. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I start weeping. I have wanted this for a very long time. “Thank you,” I say to Barbara, “thank you, thank you.”

young Carrot Girl with an Irish friend
Carrot Girl in Ireland as a child