Sometimes I have so much to say that I can’t say anything. I don’t know where to begin. So I dance. I can express anger, sorrow, bewilderment, power, joy, longing, satisfaction, and fear with my body. I don’t even need that much space, but it’s nice if I have it. Outdoors is fun, weather permitting.
For some reason, though I majored in choreography at Cornish College, I do not dance as often as I like or need. It seems to be, must be, similar to my need for the ocean. Looking at it’s fine and dandy for a while, but it ain’t the real thing, the jump-in-the-friggin-cold-ass-water deep-seated need. Like a vitamin. I think dance is that way for me, too: a vitamin, a mineral, a necessary component for a healthy body.
When I was 26 I thought my dancing days were over, and even wrote a poem to that effect. So going to Cornish to study dance at age 30 was a revelation. I wasn’t even the oldest dancer there. (I was second oldest, if you don’t count the teachers, and why wouldn’t you?)
Turns out, my definition of dance is too narrow. Can you move your body through space? with or without music? You can dance.
“We can dance if we want to,” sing Men Without Hats.
Today marks the ninth anniversary of Emmett’s death. Time is indeed a bizarre, weird, fluid concept.
We met the day after a winter solstice party. I was in no mood to socialize let alone make new friends.
Knock knock knock.
Knock knock knock.
I drag myself away from The Prairie Home Companion and go to the door, trying to plaster a semblance of a smile on my snoot.
It’s Llyn, my then-girlfriend. Did she lose her key? “I’ve brought company,” she says, with a real smile.
I look down. And there he is: big, black, and beautiful. He wags his plumy tail. “It’s you!” cries my heart. “Hello!” says my mouth. And that was it: love at first sight.
The next six years completely changed the direction of my life. I made time for play, for fun. For adventure. We went almost everywhere together, even the movies. Therapy, even!
One time, at the beach, he found a particularly noxious-smelling salmon carcass. He rolled in it, of course, which didn’t worry me too much at the time. He was always rolling in interesting smells. I knew it’d wear off. But when we were in the car heading home, my eyes began to stream with tears. The stench! I stopped to roll every window down; it didn’t help. And when I looked at him in the rear-view mirror, there he was, proud as could be, tongue hanging out. “I am a badass,” said his expression. “I rule.”
He was also kind. Once we were walking back from the library when a young man and a very young dog approached us. “Do you mind if they play?” asked the guy. “I’m trying to help him socialize.”
“Sure,” I said. By this time Emmett was a full grown Malamute mix. He was easily ten times the size of the little dog. Nonetheless, he began to play with him, very carefully. He threw himself to the ground, pretending the puppy had knocked him over, and let the puppy climb all over him.
This is the same wolfy dog that killed a chicken, and took down a young deer.
After Emmett died, I felt him near me, especially when I walked one of our familiar routes. We often walked at night, so I was used to not seeing him for long periods; his black coat blended into the shadows. He’d run ahead, or lollygag behind. But we were always connected. And one whistle — his special whistle — usually brought him to my side.
In the hardest times after the evacuation, when I didn’t know where I was going or how or if I was going to live, I’d feel him again: walking with me in the dark. My quiet, strong, kind companion. Emmett Ocean Shé. I am loving you.
I turned away from love three times, four, five. Five hundred.
Each time I aborted a baby, I turned away from love.
Each time I was deeply attracted to someone, but did nothing, I turned away from love.
Each time I ignored that quiet inner voice, I turned away from love.
These are my regrets. That I was not brave enough or knowing enough to defy my thinking.
I recently watched Eddie the Eagle, a film about the British ski jumper whose lifelong dream was to participate in the Olympic Games. His father told him he wasn’t an athlete. Coaches laughed at him and dismissed him. He failed over and over and over again. But he persevered. He kept listening to that quiet inner voice despite the terrific cacophony of naysayers.
That’s the challenge.
I stopped feeding Sunny the Palomino every morning. The male human of the property drove me away with rudeness and ugly notes. The rodeo cowboy who ‘owns’ Sunny doesn’t seem to care much what happens to him. “He’s a charmer,” said my landlady about the cowboy, and she’s right. Perhaps Sunny will be fine, now that I’ve fed him for three solid weeks, and now that the neighbors know that I care and am watching.
So how else do I turn toward love?
By honoring that irrational passion for home and family.
When I terminated those pregnancies years ago I thought I was doing the right thing — for them, for the babies. I was afraid that if I went through with it I would hurt them, either accidentally or on purpose. But by trying not to harm a potential child, I harmed myself.
So I am building a tiny house on wheels. That way I can have a home of my own while I look for rural seaside acreage. On which I will build a home for a family.
There’s plenty of coastline on this planet. And plenty of unloved children. I just have to find my place, and find my tribe. And keep turning toward love.
“Sunny!” I yell as he runs through the wind-opened gate into the wide open space beneath the trees.
My mind immediately throws up horrific images of him smashed by a camper van on the busy road a few hundred yards away, or running wild through the state park never to be seen again, attacked by bobcats or pumas. While I run for the halter, Allie runs through the gate, too.
These are not my horses. And they are not obeying vocal commands. I quickly realize that there’s no way I can catch a horse that doesn’t want to be caught, let alone two. I am not a rodeo cowgirl with roping skills. I am a writer.
Food. I drop the halters and drag their big green food bin out of the corral, wrest open the container with the senior feed pellets and scoop it into the bin. The noise gets their attention. I scoop another quart of food into the bin and they both trot toward me and begin eating. Another scoop in, then I drag the bin back into the corral, horses following, noses down in the bin, both chewing and walking. I haul it in far enough so that everyone clears the gate, which they are no longer interested in. Drop the bin. Walk calmly out of the corral and secure the gate with the rusty chain.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I am trembling from adrenaline. And no longer interested in separating them as I usually do, so they can each eat to their heart’s content. I lean against the shed and breathe. Look at the blue sky, the pine trees whipping around in the wind. The ocean’s about a mile away. The sun broke the eastern horizon about 30 minutes ago. The air is fresh and moist from the rain the night before. Buzzards cruise high in the sky, looking for breakfast. Not here, not today.
The flagstone path down to the spigot is uneven, sometimes the circular steps tilt one way or the other. Carefully, I make my way down, turn on the water, round the corner, and grab a few flakes of alfalfa from the trailer.
I set up two feed stations for Sunny and Allie in the corral, and check the water tub. Secure the gate with both chains –yes!– then place the halters on their hooks and close up the shed. Step down the tilty path to turn off the water. Then walk through the manure field to get to the sandy path that takes me to the ocean.
Once I am clear of the ranch property, I exhale, loud and long. Holy Macaroni! Milagro! This was a mild lesson in horse care. A mild lesson! No one was hurt, not one single body. Disaster averted! Always check the gates!
She’s right. I am an idiot. Once again I have fallen for the words, instead of the actions.
“You can ride Magic.” vs. She forgets the appointment, over and over and over again.
“Sunny’s my baby!” vs. He hasn’t clapped eyes on him for months.
“I love you and miss you.” vs. He’s in town and doesn’t get around to visiting me.
“I so look forward to these meetings.” vs. 99% tardiness, for years.
I have squandered a lot of time and energy believing people’s words vs. their actions. It has taken me a long time to figure out that to most folks, words are only meaningless sounds in the air.
But words have power. In the beginning was the Word, or so some believe.
Yesterday, before going to Sunny’s vet appointment, I wrote down: Sunny is healthy.
Guess what? He is. Skinny, with iffy teeth, but basically healthy. Hallelujah.
But my words also get me in trouble. When I give my word that I’ll do something, I do it, come hell or high water.
Guess what? Most things aren’t worth hell or high water. I have been the exhausted victim of my own self-imposed deadlines. Relax, why don’tcha!
Once, I dragged my bronchitis-whipped ass down to a public computer space to finish the work I started for a client on my private computer before it conked out on me. Call her and tell her I’m sick? Nosiree! Dead and on time, was my motto. Deadlines had power.
No more. Nyet. Nem. No. My poor body has suffered enough, run ragged by a dictatorial mind.
Time to rest.
This idiot has seen the light. And it’s gorgeous.
I point to the computer monitor. “No need, see? Those were done in June.”
She looks at the monitor, then her clipboard. “Oh, right! Okay then, let’s see…” She’s flustered because we’ve wandered off script. She has set tasks in a set order and it takes a minute for her to figure out how to skip ahead.
I can relate. I once complained to a director because one of the actors in the play wouldn’t say her line as written. So I couldn’t say my line as written. I had to improvise, and I believed I shouldn’t have to. One line. Out of the entire 90 minute piece.
To be clear, I love improvisation. I’m good at it. Not to mention that I love the actress I was working with. She’s fabulous, with a gorgeous voice and excellent timing. It was my thinking that had a hard time with it. The rule follower. The good girl.
But I’m not the only one. Last Thursday, my eye doctor had trouble when we wandered from the words. He got stuck in a contact-lens-selling script, even though I said several times, “Thanks, I’ll think about it.”
Harping, they call it, though I don’t know why, since harps play ethereal music. (I used to have one myself, a hand-me-down from my biological mother. Oops, tangent. Where is that script…?)
Life is improvisational. It just is. I never know what will happen when I step outside the door. Once I saw a lady leading a llama down the road. Another time a coyote played hide and seek with me, jumping up out of the bushes every so often to check me out.
All my life I have had trouble getting my bio-family to stick the scripts I write. For example:
ELIZABETH, critically ill, post EMT visit. She has trouble breathing, yet calls a family member: “I am scared that I am dying,” she cries.
FAMILY MEMBER rushes to her side: “How can I help?”
Instead, I get: “Go to church.” “Take a Xanax.” “You’re not dying.” “I just won a surf contest.” “Sorry, I need to look at a truck for sale.” “I have an aikido test.”
Bewildering. And painful.
And it’s not just family. It’s bosses, friends, lovers. Basically, humans. I have trouble with humans wandering from the script, or reading their lines badly, or using a different script, one I haven’t written, or don’t know about.
No wonder I am drawn to the theatre. It’s all written down, you know exactly what to expect and when. No surprises. And you can rehearse!
I remember telling one of my first boyfriends how he should behave when I’m upset, and exactly what he should say to make me feel better.
A few days ago, I visited my friend Sunny the Palomino. I hadn’t been down the dune for a few weeks, and I was shocked at how skinny he was.
He’s a big horse. I’m 5’7″ and his withers are about five feet high. When he walked away I saw streaks of dried diarrhea down his hind legs. And the big strong muscles that had carried me around the arena all those months ago had atrophied.
After feeding him several chopped carrots, I high-tailed it back up the dune to the ranch where I live, mowing down scrub chaparral as I went. I was furious and scared.
There’s a board listing phone numbers of the humans responsible for each horse. I don’t see Jamie’s name on it. I knock on the ranch owner’s door, but no answer.
Judy is down below, getting Jetson ready to ride. She asks how I am.
“Well,” I said, “not good. Sunny looks to be in bad shape. He’s even skinnier than the last time I saw him, and that was too skinny.”
I’d been telling P, the ranch owner, about Sunny for months. “There’s nothing Jamie can do about it,” she’d say, which usually pissed me off, but also shut me up. Sunny’s not my horse, he “belongs” to Jamie. And Sunny’s new digs belong to L, who has a lonely pony. Sunny’s there for company, and for L to ride. Her place is immaculate, which initially reassured me, knowing Sunny lived in a cleaner space.
“I’m frustrated,” I tell Judy, “I don’t know what to do.”
Next thing I know, Judy and I are bushwhacking down the dune back to Sunny’s. She’s been around horses longer than I have. Maybe I’m overreacting.
“Wow,” she says, “you can see his tail bone. And look at those hollows.” She points to his hindquarters.
“He used to look like Jetson,” I say.
“I don’t like that red eye either,” she says.
“That’s new,” I say.
We bushwhack back to the ranch.
P is there now, and chastises Judy for leaving Jetson with his saddle on.
I interrupt. “We’ve just been down to see Sunny. He’s even skinnier than before. I want to call Jamie. What’s his number?”
She shifts her weight, looks away, says, “There’s nothing Jamie can do about it.”
“You don’t know that,” I say as calmly as I can. “You’re not Jamie. You can’t speak for him. What if Magic were sick?” Magic’s “her” horse. “Wouldn’t you want to know?”
After half an hour of listening to how “delicate the situation is” (she brokered Sunny’s housing deal), P finally agrees to give me Jamie’s number. She invites me inside the ranch house, and we call him. No answer. P leaves a message.
I look out the picture window at the Pacific ocean. The sea is rough and choppy, but the sky is clear. “I am afraid that one day I will go down there,” I say, “and Sunny will be dead. If you saw him you would cry.”
“I don’t want to see him,” says P, on the verge of tears.
What kept me sitting there listening to P hem and haw instead of screaming and yelling is that the stakes are so high. If I continue to do nothing, if I continue to politely go away when P says there’s nothing anyone can do, then I become a contributing factor to Sunny’s death.
I am listening for a solution. Because there must be one. And I am not going anywhere until I hear it.
After listening a little longer I say, “How about if I talk to L? Without you?” L is one of P’s best friends. Her husband is P’s doctor. “I’m a stranger, we’ve no history, I have nothing to lose.”
P agrees, so I hike back down the dune.
Sunny, as usual, is happy to see me. I am an asshole for not insisting sooner, for listening to all the excuses, for making several of my own: not my horse, not my house, not my business. Total bullshit. He is a friend of mine, therefore his health is my business.
I ring the doorbell on the immaculate, beautiful house. The dog is barking, but we’ve met before, his name is Emmett (same as my best friend), so I’m not worried.
“Who is it!”
“Elizabeth, Sunny’s friend,” I say through the crack in the door.
L opens the door wider, bent over to hold Emmett’s collar. Both are scowling.
I drop my gaze. This ain’t the time to be confrontational. Over Emmett’s barking, I say, “I’m worried about Sunny.” I explain about his weight loss in such a short period of time.
“We feed him,” she says. “He was skinny when he got here.” Of course she’s defensive. I remember when someone called animal control on my Emmett instead of talking to me to find out that we’d been to six vets and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.
I crouch down so this other Emmett can smell my hand and remember that he knows me. He immediately stops barking and wags his tail enthusiastically. Lick lick lick.
“I want to help,” I say to L from dog level. “Please let me help.”
Eventually L admits that she’s worried too; she’s been thinking about calling the vet. As Emmett runs rings around us, she takes me to where the food is kept. It’s quality oat/alfalfa cubes and senior horse pellets. (Sunny’s probably 25 or so, no one knows for sure.) So the food supply is good and plentiful. One worry down.
P’s theory, that I’ve been hearing every time I tell her that Sunny is skinny and won’t she please go look at him, is that Sunny needs to be fed separately. That since he’s a slow eater with bad teeth, he doesn’t get enough calories.
I venture this theory to L. “Maybe we could separate them for meals?” She nods, points out the halters hanging on the side of the shed. I grab one to bring Sunny down to the corral. He helpfully puts his nose in the halter, just like old times. L fills a wheelbarrow full of cubes, adds water, and wheels it in. Sunny immediately scarfs down. When he lifts his head occasionally to look at us, his lips drip green goo.
While we walk and work, I listen. Mornings are hard for L and her husband because they both work.
Aha. “I’m up at sunrise every day,” I say. “I could come down here after I feed Cisko.”
“Sure,” I say, “I’m up anyway. Let’s try it for a week, see if it helps.”
So we work out a deal: I’ll feed Sunny and her pony Allie in the mornings. If they are together, I’ll separate them (there’s an arena and a corral). L and her husband will feed at night. “You just got yourself a free stable hand,” I say.
She laughs and shakes my hand.”God bless you.”
Because I was able to remember the stakes — Sunny’s health — I did not stomp in like a righteous sumbitch casting aspersions and making demands. But as I told Judy later, “The sun was not going to set without a solution. There must be a change today.”
I was done with excuses, mine and theirs. Done with humans. But fortunately I am human, so I can communicate with them. Because Sunny can’t. And he’s my friend.
“The release is the reward,” said Horse Teacher Number Two.
Jake and I were on a lunge line, he circling at a walk then a trot, first in one direction, then the other; me standing in the middle of his circles driving him with my hands and voice.
Number Two is a proponent of the Parelli brand of natural horsemanship, and she was teaching me games to ease communication between equine and human. Circling is one of the games. She’d already taught me Friendly, Yo-yo, Porcupine, Driving, and Squeeze. I’d inadvertently done Sideways one day: Jake stepped sideways when I reached over and touched his hindquarters. (I found out that these games also work on humans. I used Driving at the DMV, even without a car.)
In How to Speak ‘Horse’, Andrea and Markus Eschbach write that “the best way to tell your horse, Good Job! and Yes! is as follows: at exactly the same moment your horse has followed your command correctly, direct all your energy and attention away from him…this is called the release because you are ‘turning off’ the pressure of your body language and focus. For your horse, this means he has the time and space to take a deep breath.”
I was having a hard time remembering to release.
This is also true of my non-equine life.
“Break these chains around my heart,” sings Deborah Allen. “Cut me loose, and set me free.”
Before toxic mold forced me to evacuate my home and release 99% of my possessions, I kept almost everything “just in case.” Art supplies I hadn’t used in years; my mother’s wedding dress even though my parents divorced when I was six; pretty, cracked ceramic pieces for a mosaic I never made; fabric; sewing notions and recipes that belonged to my grandmother. I’d been hauling this stuff around for decades, and adding to it from free boxes and curbside finds.
I will never forget the feeling I had driving toward the ocean after the evacuation, only the clothes on my back and my computer in the trunk. My lungs were so damaged that I could barely breathe, and my heart was rat-a-tat-tatting with adrenaline. But I felt a peace that I had not felt in a very long time. I was — finally — doing what I wanted to do: going to the sea.
I did not want to die in Olympia. It was not my home. I’d washed up there because of college and had stayed, out of inertia. I didn’t choose it, it just happened to me.
Like carrying around all those heirlooms over the years, appointing myself the family historian. But guess what? Nobody cared about that stuff, nobody needed it. Nobody in the biological family reacted to the fact that I was dying.
Except me. Finally, I chose me. Finally, I released everything tangible that was weighing me down.
And — quelle surprise! — I didn’t need any of it. And I am still alive more than three years later.
The release was the reward.
Let it all go.
Possessions are easy to come by, I’ve found out.
Now my task is to keep only what brings me joy. Every. Single. Day.
So I toss the empty stationery box P gave me today, even though it has a horse on it. It’s shabby, though the gesture was not. I can keep the gesture — she appreciates me feeding the horses when she was ill — but I don’t need the box.
This concept is hard-won. Because I am a sentimental person, highly romantic. I’m a keeper. But right after I put the box in the recycle bin, I took a deep breath of relief. Release. I don’t need another thing to weigh me down.
As I walk south on the shore I see two girls ahead, splashing in the water, diaphanous scarves held high in the breeze as they run and twirl.
Otherwise, they are naked.
An older burly man holds a sophisticated camera to his eye and follows them.
He’s fully dressed.
I pass them, and yes, not a stitch of clothes on the girls. The man wears a baseball cap, long-sleeved shirt, shorts, running shoes, and socks. Glasses.
The girls are boyishly slim.
There’s a family up ahead, with a younger, shorter girl, and some surfers farther south in the distance. All clothed.
Two young men sit on a log, up from the cavorting girls and photographer. They are shirtless. Eventually I realize they’re all together. Perhaps the boys are awaiting their turn before the camera?
I sit on my regular log, near my regular swimming spot, about a quarter mile away, and watch them. I can’t tell how old the girls are.
I’ve been hiking for hours, north to Marker 4 and back. I’m tired.
I remember my mother’s mechanic taking photos of me on Venice Beach early one summer morning. I wasn’t completely naked, like these girls, but I was topless. I can’t remember how old I was. Voting age? Drinking age? When is the age of consent?
Today I am fully clothed, though I intend to swim soon. And yes, when no one’s around, I occasionally skinny dip. But now I am wearing my new cream cowgirl hat with the wide brim, my dark sunglasses, Levi’s, lavender hoodie, and bright yellow (official looking?) windbreaker. I stand up.
Walking purposefully toward the photographer I say, “Sir. May I see your permit.” It’s not a question, and I hold out my hand.
They all have their backs to me as I approach, looking at the camera’s view-finder, the three of them. They turn toward me. Close up I can see that they are young women, probably in their early 20’s.
“Permit?” he says. His accent sounds German or Swiss, and I wonder if they are European. Hmmm. “I didn’t know we needed a permit.”
“My bad,” says the blonde woman, stepping toward me. She has no accent, speaks United States English. She’s all business, despite her lack of apparel. “I didn’t know we needed a permit. For the landscape?”
“State park,” I say. “No nudity.”
“O-oh,” says the blonde. She has terrible acne, which does not lessen her beauty. “We came in from the neighborhood.”
The pornographer starts reciting something about a “Cahill statute, that nudity is permitted as long as no one objects–”
“I object,” I interrupt, raising my hand as if I’m in court. I object.
And they stopped. They folded up the photo shoot and hiked back over the dune, toward the city.
I am amazed. Adrenaline courses through my blood, my body prepared for flight or fight.
“I wanted to make sure that you were okay,” I told the young women before they departed.
“Thank you,” says the blonde, looking me in the eye. Sincere.
“Have a nice day,” says the brunette, walking away with the pornographer, wrapping the translucent red scarf around her body. It hides nothing. Protects nothing.
I object to the objectification of women.
I object to the institutionalized privilege of the male gaze.
I object to Jack the mechanic taking advantage of my non-existent self-esteem. I didn’t object then, but I do now. I wish an older woman had come over to make sure I was okay.
Because I wasn’t, then.
It has taken me decades to realize that I can object. I am allowed to object. That — what a concept! — I can raise my voice without someone harming me. That I can delineate my comfort zone. Have boundaries.
Maybe those young women were fine. I hope so. I pray that they know that they are beautiful, whether someone’s taking pictures of them or not; that they have value beyond their bodies; that they are loved for their own sweet selves.
If the pornographer/photographer had also been nude, would I have objected? I don’t know. I do know that the disparity — in status, in privilege, in power, in economics — between men and women disturbs me deeply.