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Monday, October 17, 2016

Riding with Kerrie

I walk for an hour every day. There was a time I would add "if I have time" to that statement, but my walk is no longer optional. As the social/political climate gets uglier and ever more bizarre, the sanity that walk brings me has become necessary and non-negotiable. I have had friends ask to join me, but I'm afraid the answer is always "no". I desperately need the solitude, and the opportunity for my mind to just wander. Walking is great for physical health, but it's my mental health that pushes me out that door every day. I don't even take Murphy (my dog). I walk him, then I walk me. My walk (and significantly limiting my time on social media) has become a survival strategy.

Today I caught the smell of leaves and wet earth, and it sent me immediately back to my childhood. It's funny how smells can do that better than anything else. It reminded me of riding with my sister, Kerrie. I needed that reminder of a time when peace, gentleness and kindness reigned.

My sister and I used to ride our horses every day. It was just an assumption. For miles and miles, with the careless lack of paying mind to our own mortality, with no awareness of time, we would while away the hours and days until the snow came and prevented us from doing so. We took that ease and peace so for granted. On my walk today, the memory was so vivid that I could almost hear the sound of shod hoofs on dirt and gravel, and feel the soft leather reins in my hands. I felt a confusing mixture of joy at the memory, and the ache of longing to be there again.

The thing we took so for granted as kids seems so impossible and unreal in the context of today's world. Once, for us, riding was breathing and horses were air. We rode bareback, almost always. We didn't give a thought to how strong it made us or what it did for our balance. We just knew that saddles weren't necessary unless we were showing, so we didn't use them. When we asked for a canter (read: gallop) there was no forethought. It was more like muscle-memory as subtle as instinct, and off we'd go. Our horses loved the increased speed. You could almost feel their joy in the freedom of their own movement. Faster and faster, as fast as we could go. The smell of sweaty horse, a mane brushing my nose. The wind blowing my hair off my face in a world before helmets. The blur of green as the corn on either side sped past. It was better than meditation, almost a prayer. The rhythm of hoof beats and the sound of our dog's tags as she raced beside us was almost a song. It was everything.

I miss those moments when there were only moments. Thousands of hours of blissful moments. I miss my strength and my fearlessness. I miss that connection to a magical unicorn. Horses have always been magic for me; almost a talisman. They represent everything strong, right and good. My life will never be complete without one, and I suspect Kerrie would say the same. I miss it so much it hurts, but I'm grateful, too. I'm grateful to have that, to know that kind of joy. To know that something in this world can provide me with that kind of happiness, and to have that to look forward to.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Weighty Issue

Photo: http://www.uline.com
So, I signed up for a three-month food-prep and weight loss class. If you know anything about me, you know how completely out of character that is. I HATE cooking. I mean, I LOATHE it. And I'm horrible at it too. I've actually set my back lawn on fire and had to put it out with a hose, and I wasn't even cooking outdoors. Long story. I used to make waffles once in awhile when my daughter was little, and everybody called them 'awfuls'. It's no joke guys. And weight loss? Please! Lets talk about how much I DON'T care about weight. And then lets talk about why.

When I was little, I felt like I hated most of what it was to be a girl. I never wanted to be a boy (and I thought they were gross, of course), but girls didn't seem to get to have any fun. If I had to wear a dress, it meant I had to wear tights (uncomfortable), shoes that I had to keep un-scuffed and clean. It also meant that I had to be 'ladylike' (whatever that meant) and 'modest', (another word I didn't really get). Essentially, what it boiled down to was sitting quietly and politely, ie; NO FUN. Fun meant digging in the dirt for worms (to bring in the house), looking for frogs (to bring in the house), looking for grasshoppers (to bring in the house) and taking old electronics apart and trying to put them back together. Okay, I was a weird kid. I was also obsessed with horses, rode whenever I had the opportunity, and pretended to be one when I didn't. I liked to be dirty, and outdoors. I liked to follow my grandfather around his wood shop until I was covered in sawdust. In short, any day that ended with me being filthy enough for my grandmother to say "Go clean up before potatoes start growing on you" was a fabulous day. And didn't involve dresses, being ladylike, or being modest.

Another odd bit for me was that the more uncomfortable I was, the more adults would compliment my appearance. I would be absolutely miserable, and my older relatives would be all " Wow! Look at how PRETTY you are!!". Early childhood lesson: Misery = social approval. Okay, and I get it's not like that for everybody and I fully embrace my weirdness here. I didn't get the impression that my sister or female cousins felt miserable at all about dressing up, so it seems like it was more of a 'me' thing. But there it was.

Unfortunately for me I was an early bloomer (and that list of issues is for another day. Maybe.), and that meant an awareness of all the usual social pressures on women to conform to a certain physical type. I wasn't fat, but I wasn't skinny either. For a young girl (especially one that was extremely uncomfortable in her own, ever-changing skin)"not skinny" was the end of the world. Couple that with growing up in a household where weight and appearance were always a priority and a discussion, and the relentless message was "she could be pretty if she wasn't fat" and boy does that lend itself to a whole bunch of self-loathing and trouble.

I very quickly learned that my body wasn't designed for weight loss. I would lose it for awhile , and then it would just plateau eternally. Eventually I was frustrated enough that I just stopped eating altogether. I started to lose weight again, so in my mind that must have been the right course of action. Because nothing was more important than being thin. EVERYBODY knows that. And it started to show. People started complimenting me on how good I looked, started saying things like "It must feel great to start getting so healthy!"So I kept on keeping on. My skin was grey, I had dark circles under my eyes, and the compliments kept coming. Then I got sick. REALLY sick.  I had mono, but not just for the usual couple of weeks. I had it for MONTHS. And then I had pneumonia. I missed my freshman year of high school. And I still wasn't skinny! My doc at the time knew what was going on and he threatened me with hospitalization. I knew he meant it. He said if my mom wasn't a nurse, I would already be there. It scared me enough to stop the behavior, but didn't do anything at all about the psychological impact. I thought making myself throw up would be safer. My doc saw the burst blood-vessels in my eyes and threatened me again. He also mentioned scary things like detached retinas, heart failure and blindness. So I gave up. I mean, completely.

I thought things like "I'll never be good enough" and "There's something wrong with me" (and it was JUST me. My sister was thin. Of course she was.) I drank a lot, but I never really liked it. And then I discovered cocaine and what a miraculous weight-loss aid that was. I never really talked about what I was feeling, because what was the point? Wasn't that just another failure? Another weakness? I felt like my inability to be like other young women or to care about the things they cared about made me bad and wrong somehow. I went to hair school, learned to do hair and makeup, and started to really focus on how I dressed. It was always on the wild side and I liked to wear leather (still do), so I felt like maybe I had just found my own unique way of caring about the 'right' things. I would just be a person who cares about such things, and it would be okay. The substance abuse was just for fun. Of course it was. Until it wasn't. I kicked it, but the weight was there, right where I left it. And I hadn't reached "skinny" anyway.

Eventually I got pregnant, and it was right around that time that I started to think: What if I have a girl? How will I teach her about 'all that' when I don't really have a grip on it myself? I thought about it a lot. I would look in the mirror when I was getting ready for work and think: I wish I could look in the mirror and just say "good morning, you", without having to change my face. I wish my very own face was good enough; perfect the way it is. I wish I could wear clothes for of how they make me feel, not how they make me look. I wish I could stop putting my human-shaped feet into pointed shoes; but I have to wear high-heels "because they make my legs look longer and beauty is pain, after all". (Just between us, how f***ing stupid IS that?) I wish I could say those conversations with myself were the beginning of some kind of revelation, of healing, but they weren't. Not yet.

I had my daughter, and then it was all about "Baby weight". For some women it's not a big deal. They get a belly-bump for awhile and then they have the baby and it's gone. I couldn't even get out of my own way, or wear shoes home after work because my feet were so swollen. It wasn't because I was lazy and uncommitted, but because it was just the way it was. The TV told me differently though: If I had a tough time with the baby weight, it was just another failure. I just didn't try hard enough. Never mind that I was an exhausted single parent. I didn't look 'right', and it was all my fault. Now I was not only jilted and alone with a child, nobody would ever want me or love me because I was just a big, fat mommy-blob. The way people treated me confirmed this: according to everybody, I was suddenly no longer me anymore. My whole identity was about being someone's mother, and I should automatically know what that meant because "instincts". Yeah, not so much. But hey, I met a guy who seemed to dig me (my daughter's father had literally left the country), and though he picked on me ruthlessly about my weight (all it takes is effort and willpower, don't be so lazy), I put up with it because hey, maybe I was still human after all. Even though I was fat. And then fen phen (or was it phen fen?) came on the market. It was experimental and maybe not safe, but what the hell.

I lost a ton of weight on the drug. I changed absolutely nothing about what I was doing in terms of diet and exercise, but I lost weight like crazy. I was risking my life, but here came the compliments: "Look how HEALTHY you are getting!" Yeah, I was healthy-ing my way into a smaller coffin, but I was taking up less space, becoming more socially acceptable. A 'real' person. I thought about that thing Kate Moss says "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels". But I HATED how thin felt. I felt weak and frail. I would look at myself in the mirror and see a gaunt (and old-looking!) version of my face perched on an alien body. I hated the knobbiness of my knees, and how bow-legged I looked. I hated the way my bones protruded through my thin flesh. It made me think of death. Once, I caught a glimpse of my backbone and ribs in a mirror as I bent down to tie my shoes and I was so horrified that I burst into tears. (It's funny, I never looked at my thin friends this way, but to me I looked awful). I was cold all the time (which I usually am, so it was worse), I couldn't get comfortable when I slept and even the smallest bump would hurt. I felt terrible. Of course when they took the drug off the market, the weight came back. It didn't matter what I did to stop it (or why). It always came back.

The "crazy" around weight didn't stop there. I starved, I chain smoked, I over-exercised. I still did all of that. I think it's pretty normal for women to accept self-flagellation as just another way of life. We call it other things (because the TV does). We call it 'motivation' or something along those lines. It's not. One day, I caught my daughter watching me. Is this what I wanted for her? Did I want to teach her to hate herself? Did I want her to think that her appearance was the most important thing she had to offer the world? So important that it took precedence over everything else? No, a thousand times no. I knew that if I wanted her to grow up loving herself, I had to love me. I had to show her what self-love looked like.That was a tough one, but I did it.

I finally accepted that I wasn't 'normal' (whatever that means), but that I didn't have to be. I was my own worst critic on that score. I accepted that I'm always going to be a little fluffy, and that means nothing about who I am or my value as a human being. I sent my daughter to a great school with a strict no media policy, and that just made things easier. It eradicated all those twisted media-messages directed at women. She and I would dig in the dirt together, grow things, make things, and joke about how many potatoes we could grow on ourselves. She went through a 'pink' phase, and then a 'blue' phase, and then a 'red' phase. Sometimes she liked to play with dolls and that was cool. And sometimes she didn't and that was cool too. She led the charge in terms of her preferences for toys, colors and activities, and all was well. We hiked with the dogs, we danced it out, we read books. We both dressed in clothes we liked for how they made us feel, we wore comfortable shoes (or no shoes!) and our faces were perfect exactly the way they were. Seeing myself through my daughter's eyes was really the beginning of healing for me. Healing from a lifetime of bullshit messages about how women should look and what they should care about. I needed the freedom from the media messages as much as my daughter, and it was the beginning. And there were many years of therapy (which continues).

It's been a long, slow climb through self-acceptance, and finally to self love. I'm really grateful to be where I am in that regard. I've come to realize that the cliche is true: beauty does, indeed originate within. I started looking for it in other people first. Where once I may have thought "She might be pretty if she wasn't so fat", I think "Wow, her face glows with kindness". And that's not something you will ever find in a make-up bag or a photo-altering app. Now, I can turn that same love and kindness on myself and mean it. It's kind of a big deal. And I now understand that not everything is about goals or climbing mountains. I do yoga because it feels good (Yes, Debbie, it's still your VHS tape!), I let my hair grow because it makes me sad to cut it, and I don't have to. I did add some purple and blue highlights though :-) I dress for comfort and wear comfortable shoes. I look at my face in the AM and say "Good morning you. It's a new day, lets make it a good one" without any thought whatsoever of changing my face. It's flaws are a perfect reflection of a lifetime of sun and smiles. I finally understand that trying to approximate a socially-contrived stereotype is not for everybody, and it certainly isn't for me. But you can imagine how it feels to have someone say "You know, you should lose some weight. It's just a little diet and exercise". Seriously folks, I WISH it was just about willpower, effort and self-control. I starved myself, almost to death, I drove myself to the hospital in labor, I raised a child alone. If it were just about gutting it out, it would have been a done deal a loooong time ago.

And what does any of that have to do with my opening statement? Well, everything. It took a long time to get to this place. I'm taking the class because I want to, without any particular goal in mind.  It's about self love. It's an apology to myself for everything I've done; for the starvation and the drugs, for the self-loathing and judgement, for the shitty, dehydrated food and the chemical-laden, meal-substitute shakes. For the abuse, really. Both the abuse I put up with from others, and that which I imposed on myself. And to learn. My daughter and I went from a crushing poverty that meant we had no real choices in terms of food because it always came down to "what is the cheapest thing we can tolerate today?" (FYI, folks who really think poor people are out there buying lobster and steak are so full of willful ignorance that it hurts every ounce of common sense I posses, which is a lot.) , and with very little transition, suddenly went to "Who do we call for take out today?". That was cool for awhile, but it's no way to live. So I'm doing this, I'm taking this class. I'm sure I'll lose some weight, and that's cool. Do I expect miracles? I really don't, and that's okay. Because that isn't the point. The point is, to take better care of ourselves, just to do that. I've spent 2 years studying canine nutrition, and the better part of a year on equine nutrition (I don't even have a horse right now!) and it's time to spend a little time learning about me, a human, who's worth it. And for all the right reasons.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why I love Circles

Photo: www.rgbstock.com
When I first started this blog, my intention was to keep it light-hearted. I wanted it to be a place where I could focus on the fluffy side of life; I wanted to make it primarily about animals and silliness. It hasn't exactly worked out that way. See, the thing about being online, about being part of any online community, is that it has a fairly pronounced dark side. I get that we all know this, and it isn't exactly the latest news. But it's easy to get caught up, to get dragged away and to be distracted by all the noise. For me, the worst part has been finding out about some of the horrible things that people believe in, even people I know and love. The feelings fall somewhere between a helpless kind of melancholy, and the realization that something with teeth is standing next to your bed at 3:00AM. It is what it is. And apparently, we're all about labels these days. We're all about making assumptions about large groups of people based on speculation, about passing judgement, about forgetting there is a difference between opinion and fact. Propaganda is propaganda no matter the source. Wanting to believe something doesn't make it true, but people believe just the same.

People believe nonsense about others simply because someone told them to. A failure to distinguish between opinion and fact compounds the issue. It feels heavy. It feels like negotiating an unpredictable landscape where logic and compassion no longer mean a damned thing, and anger, prejudice and greed are acceptable.  Everybody is competing to see who has it the worst, and those who have it good feel fully entitled to exploit the desperation of others. It's so in my face every day, and it makes it hard to stay fluffy. Everybody is looking out for number one. I want to talk about what I believe, and why it makes the rest of it so difficult.

I won't deny the importance of the individual, but here's the deal: Each and every one of us is unique. We are all "different". Even so, unless you live alone in the middle of nowhere, build your own house, grow all your own food, make your own clothes, create your own energy, etc, you are connected to the rest of us. Our fates are inextricably bound. But it goes deeper than that.

The reason I love circles isn't just because I abhor straight lines and the sharpness of angles, but because they accurately depict our relationship with everything. Circles are inclusive. They are found in nature in a perfect state. They hold us all within them; they accurately reflect the reality of how even the smallest act can create a far-reaching ripple.

natamcancer.org
Taken spiritually, the idea of the sacred circle has been embraced by many, many cultures, and not for nothing. I'll focus on the Native American medicine wheel pictured above (items like this beautifully quilled medicine wheel are available by clicking the link under the image, and benefit Native American cancer research. A site which I'm not affiliated with in any way). While the symbol has been adopted by many tribes, I am most familiar with the Lakota understanding (my great gram was Sihasapa, though I didn't know much about her). Even so, there are still a lot of holes in my personal understanding to fill in, so please feel free to comment if I'm missing something.

I love this symbol. It is the epitome of inclusiveness. It doesn't just represent the connection of all people, but all of nature. Nature doesn't place humanity above anything else; we are all one in nature. It is only humanity that tries to see itself as above everything. It is seen in small ways, like assigning morality to feeding oneself (veganism for the sake of the animals, which is a fine thing to do but it implies immorality of all flesh-eaters; and being anti-farm gets extra silly when you have dogs and/or cats), or the need we have to assign human emotions and judgement to animals in order to describe how great they are ("my dog felt guilty when he dirtied the carpet", "my dog feels sorry for the abused animals on the TV","my dog is like a little person"). The truth is, every dog is a perfect dog. Every horse is a perfect horse. Every animal is perfectly and wonderfully it's own being, and not human. That doesn't make it any less, just different. The idea that 'not human' is less than us is so ingrained that we look for ourselves in everything to prove it is worthy. There's rarely ill-intent, but it's disrespectful just the same. I know I've said that before, but it can be really difficult to fully appreciate what the idea of inclusiveness means without acknowledging our human tendencies. Even so, we are perfect humans, all of us, and a natural part of the circle.

We, as humans, tend to make our spirituality separate too, as though it is something outside of ourselves.  But it is a part of nature too, and a natural part of everything. We argue and fight about the different ways we perceive our spirituality, and don't stop to realize that nobody has the whole story, and that we all do. It doesn't belong to anyone more than anyone else. Our divinity isn't dependent on our financial place in the world, it's part of who we are. It's the very energy of our beings. Before you think I've gone all religious, you need to know that my understanding of spirituality goes beyond religion (my religion is Catholic, which is neither here nor there for the moment). Even the greatest minds in history acknowledge the force of energy: The law of Conservation of energy is absolute, and says essentially that energy can neither be created or destroyed. Tesla has been quoted as saying “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” That's for those of us who need a little logic with our spiritualism. Having said that, my personal experiences have shown me a reality that many people have to take on faith. I know life doesn't end, because I've seen it. We are energy, and that energy is in all things. In that most profound, fundamental and unequivocal way, we are all connected. We can embrace it and live through it and with it, or not. But real separation is impossible, and the desire unhealthy. The individual is best able to manifest and thrive when that natural connectedness is acknowledged, and even more importantly, respected. For the more religious among you, for whom the Bible holds the most sway (or the curious), follow this link to multiple Bible passages that offer more incentive yet to support this point of view.

The problem arises when we need to be reminded of our connectedness. When we convince ourselves so thoroughly of our own self-importance that we become unable to see the validity of anything but our own priorities and our own point of view. As humans, it's something we need be aware of. Our big brains can be wonderful things; they can allow us to be stewards of our world, they can help us connect with the divinity of all things. Or they can give us a false sense of superiority and infallibility. Most of our biggest issues today come from trying to impose artificial priorities (like the acquisition of money and things) on a natural world that doesn't share or acknowledge our contrived values. The further we get from our natural state, the sicker we get. "We" meaning all of us and all of nature. That is a fact, Jack. There are ways to make it work, but the imposition of money on everything has functioned like a sickness in and of itself. It makes us hateful, paranoid, greedy. In our desire for a sense of control, we oversimplify everything; we make things so black and white that we fail to see the myriad of solutions that fall somewhere in the middle. The middle has become a blind spot. You think we would have noticed by now that the desire for money and control does nothing at all to make us better people or to improve our circumstances. We think having more makes us better. We get covetous and paranoid about our resources. It's ugly and it's violent. We use our big brains to justify it. We forget why we are here and what we're really about. We lose our magic in persuit of the trivial and insignificant.

So, those are my thoughts. I haven't found a way to adequately shield myself from the awfulness that exists, or to not get caught in it myself. We are going through a period of time when it's financially beneficial to play on peoples' prejudices and to exploit the worst of human nature. Our conversations are nothing more than hatred, name-calling, divisiveness and blame. It's so bad that we can't even see what we are doing to each other and to ourselves. We've forgotten the connection. All we can do is try to remember, and do our best to stay out of the fray.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Books and TV

Photo by Debbie Safran
I recently had the surreal experience of being featured on an episode of Paranormal Witness. The episode was based on my book In Stone, which was an account of a real-life event. I expected a lot of things. An acquaintance of mine said he doesn't do TV anymore, because they can edit it any way they like, and there is nothing you can do about it. I was a little bit terrified of what we had loosed into the world, but I had resigned myself to it in any case. When I finally watched the episode (Season 4, episode 11,When Hell Freezes Over) I was somewhat relieved. The only thing that was really contrived was the way it ended: With us fleeing to our Mom's house. I get why they did it. The episode needed to have a clear ending and our real story didn't end until three months after the ice storm. In reality, our Mom's place wasn't an option. We had three dogs (also left out of the episode) and our Mom lived in a condo where dogs weren't permitted. Seriously, if we could escape to Mom's, we would have done it a hell of a lot sooner.

I think it's interesting to see the TV version of our story. They actually left SO much out in the interest of time. I think they did a great job with the over-all feel of the experience, a great job portraying the cold, and the actors were pretty great too (wow...that little girl playing my daughter!), but some things are notably different. For one, it was a bit crazy-making to see everyone sitting around in the dark. NEVER would we have done that! We left lights on all the time, even overnight. We were terrified! Also, the house on the show looked pretty run down. Our house was really nice! Having said that, I fully understand how the dark, run down house would contribute to the aura of the story. It's funny though, how many people take TV so literally. I've noticed in some of the comments, people saying really nasty things about us for things that were actually artistic choices made by the show (like the low lighting) and had nothing to do with what really happened. It's a strange world! Of note, we also didn't share a car, and my daughter went to a Waldorf school, not a Catholic school. All irrelevant details, but examples of the difference between TV and real life.

All in all I think they did a pretty decent job. The toughest part for me was the absence of the dogs because they were such a big part of our lives and so much a part of how we coped with that experience. It felt a little empty without them there. I was concerned that the show might try and make things up, but they didn't, not at all. They did have to focus on only one aspect of what was happening though, and that meant a lot that we went through was excluded. Of course, that was necessary and expected. One of the things that TV doesn't tell you about real haunting is that it doesn't always make sense, there isn't always a tidy ending and people almost never behave rationally. It's an entirely irrational situation.

The episode was definitely an interesting step on the journey. When I wrote the book, I felt so responsible for telling the truth. I felt responsible to the people who lived the experience, the folks who so kindly helped to do research, the current resident of the home, so much responsibility to everyone involved. It was difficult to trust someone else with the story. I'm glad I did. I read comments about the book, about the episode, and so many of them are kind and supportive. I love that people have sent me messages on my author page and told me their stories. Sometimes I'm the first person they've told, and it's really emotional for them. I get it! I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to do the show, and that the book has been so well-received. It's been such a healing process. I hope that by sharing my experience, I will continue to encourage others to do the same. It was a really difficult thing to hold on to. Oh, and for your viewing 'pleasure', here is a photo of the real me in the real house in '97 :-)


                                         


Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Natural" vs. Natural

In my last post I discussed artifice in the horse show world, and what I thought about it (boo!). As always, these posts are my (often well-informed) opinion. Today, I want to talk about the flip-side of the coin; people who take things way too far due to a misguided understanding of what's natural. The woman in the photo is a prime example of the sort of person who makes me headdesk to the point of distraction. The worst part is, though I'm sure she means well, her lack of knowledge and understanding has the potential to cause real harm to the animals she claims to care about, but she and her ilk aren't interested in that. They have an agenda, they're getting kudos and admiration. People (also misguided and misinformed) look up to them. I'm sure it feels good. And who needs facts, because EMOTIONS.

In many ways I'm pretty stoked about the tendency  toward wanting a more natural way of life. I wish it had come sooner. I am personally not well-suited to this new, technological era. I'm adapting and learning because that's the thing to do, but I'm more of an outdoor kitty for sure. As such, it's endlessly amusing to me to watch folks who have never really had any connection to nature and animals talking about what's "natural" for them. First, I will address our friend in the photo: Her sign talks about terrified horses (she's an anti-carriage industry activist), but she's standing in front of a line of relaxed and sleeping horses. I read some of the comments; some of the people talking about how "sad" the horses looked. Honestly, I laughed so hard I almost wet my pants, as did my fellow experienced, horsey friends.  What these folks want is this: All the horses turned out on farms to run free and wild "like nature intended". Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Until five minutes of research reveals that A) All this vast farmland apparently owned by people who live to take in horses doesn't actually exist anywhere, except in their imagination/favorite childhood horse-stories and B) Domestic, working horses were bred (for centuries) to work (including in cities) with people, and don't appreciate endless days of doing nothing in the prime of their lives. Even I have had a horse that resented the hell out of his winter "vacation", and showed his boredom and displeasure by wrecking whatever he could get his teeth on (and yes, he had plenty to eat!). Once summer came and he was back in work, he was back to his lovable self.

What about what's natural? We aren't talking about wild horses here. In fact, very few truly wild horses even exist. For more info on that subject, check out this page: Do Wild Horses Still Exist? Even the American Mustang is considered feral; they are descendants of domestic horses. So we aren't going to bother discussing what's natural for a wild horse, because that is simply irrelevant here. As I stated before, domestic horses have been bred and selected for centuries (at least) to work with humans, and they are very well-adapted and suited to doing just that. THAT is what is natural for a domestic horse. As a horse-person, it's something I'm well-aware of, along with the bond that forms, the love of routine and attention that horses have and the sense of purpose that so many of them enjoy as well. These activists, by failing to grasp even a basic understanding of the domestic horse and what the real animal (not the fantasy-book version) is all about (and being unwilling to learn) are trying to condemn these horses to a life that is actually unnatural for them. Please understand that the carriage industry is one of the best-regulated industries in the world, that the horses have better working conditions than many people, and that pulling a carriage is very light work relative to being ridden. When these horses are ready to retire, they DO go to farms, and they are ready to do so. If you would like to support the well-being of carriage horses, support one of these farms, like this one: Blue Star Equiculture,  that not only acknowledges the ongoing importance of our working relationship with horses, but takes care of them throughout their old age. That's something positive that you can do, something far more productive than standing next to a sleeping horse with a sign that advertises how little you actually know about the subject.

Speaking of domestic farm animals, what is the deal with the anti-farm nonsense I've been reading about lately? I've seen it everywhere: Don't eat meat! Avoid dairy! OMG! Be a vegan 'cause it's NATURAL! First of all, let's acknowledge that nothing in nature (besides humans) feels guilty about feeding itself. We are NATURAL omnivores. More about that here: Humans are Omnivores. Having said that, vegetarianism and veganism are entirely valid choices, especially in our culture where food-availability (ignoring monetary considerations for the time being) is fairly unlimited. If we weren't omnivores though, entire cultures would never have existed or exist currently. That is a fact. I especially have to shake my head when an anti-farmer has a cat or dog, neither of which is a vegetarian animal. A vegetarian diet for a dog is cruel, for a cat it's actually deadly. Where do you think their food comes from? Just throwing that out there. Let me be clear here: I think factory farming is evil, horrible, cruel and many other not-so-nice adjectives. I think it needs to go away. But I support agriculture and family farms. This is what a farm should look like: Maple Wind Farm. If you would like to advocate to put an end to factory farming, I am right there with you. But farming in general? Not so much. Folks with no connection or understanding like to post misinformed nonsense that make me cringe. Just the other day I saw a video of a cow calling out for her calf that had just been weaned. It was supposed to highlight the cruelty of farming, but again, just another example of the sad disconnect that exists. It's a familiar scene to me, both with cattle and horses. Weaning time is traumatic for a couple of days, without a doubt it is. "But in the wild they wouldn't go through that heartbreak!". In the wild, most domestic farm animals would starve to death or be eaten by predators early in the first winter, but let's play pretend: Female animals in the wild are almost always either pregnant or nursing (often both) for much of their life. The weaning of one offspring is usually necessitated by the birth of another, and is facilitated by the mother, often in a not pleasant way. There is more planning and spacing around pregnancy and birth on the farm, so humans intervene. Humans have been taking care of domestic farm animals for centuries, and there are a lot of things that we have to do for them because centuries of domestication have rendered it necessary. FYI: There is no monetary reason for a farmer to prevent a cow from taking care of and nursing a newborn calf, and no monetary gain to be had by having an immune-compromised calf (who didn't get colostrum) either. Just because it was posted on Facebook and it made you feel emotions, doesn't mean that it's true. More emotions doesn't make it more true, either.

Domestic farm animals are just that: domestic farm animals. As omnivores, some of us (meaning humans in general) hunt, some of us farm. Generally speaking we don't jump on a prey animal's back and rip it's throat out with our teeth, but hey, semantics. Domestic farm animals wouldn't survive as wild animals. There are so many things that domestic animals simply can't do for themselves because centuries of domesticity have rendered it unnecessary. I think specifically of bulldogs who can't give birth naturally, and sheep who are in deep doo doo if nobody is around to sheer them, like this guy: Lost sheep. I'm curious: What do the farm-haters think would happen to all the farm animals if the haters got their way? Do you really think farms would exist just to warehouse uber-expensive, high-maintenance pets? If you live in enough of a fantasy land to believe that is actually true, I invite you to do a little research into those possibilities. Understand also, that a rescue is where an animal goes because it's in trouble. It's not a cool place to exist indefinitely, or an alternative to a home. Sanctuaries are in short supply. So fantasy aside, what do you, based on the facts, think will actually happen to the animals? I won't spoil things by answering that for you.

Okay, I've had my say and I would like to apologize for my snippy tone. I actually really love farm animals (especially cows),  I think family farms are da bomb, and I love 4-H kids, the work ethic, the connection to nature (real nature, not disconnected, fantasy nature) that comes with it. I'm disheartened and frustrated by how few people are left with that kind of connection to agriculture, and how often disconnected people spread their own special brand of misinformed manure (not the good kind that's conducive to growth). All I ask is this: If you want to advocate for something, at least make some rudimentary attempt at understanding the reality of it. Don't just jump on board because it elicits an emotional reaction. Understand that misunderstanding can do so much more harm than good.

I have so much more to discuss on this subject, but I'll end it here for now :-)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Animals and Artifice

Photo: enlightenedequine.com
There's been a lot of talk about abuse in the Tennessee Walking horse show world lately. It seems like it comes and goes, but the problems never, ever seem to be solved. By problems I mean specifically soring, stacked shoes, harsh, long-shanked bits and general rough handling that has plagued this (very sweet) breed for what feels like forever. How does this even happen? How do human beings get to a place where they can look at this and participate in it, and not only feel okay about it but defend it? Can we really become so desensitized to the pain and discomfort of another being that is ceases to move us? Of course we can. We do it to each other every day. Some days, reading my Facebook newsfeed makes me feel like a voyeur, watching people engaging in their own personal schadenfreude; insulting, dismissing and dehumanizing others openly. Finding so much joy in the suffering of others by finding justification for it. It's ugly, but it's real. And it's the justification piece that seems to be the basis of the "bad", with money being the primary motivation. I see it with dogs too. You get people together competing with animals in any capacity, and the insatiable human need for "more" and "better" takes over and thing go pear-shaped. If only our species could be more self-aware.

If you know me, you know that my position tends to be pretty moderate. I'm not so "animal activist" that I waste my energy on ultimately pointless nonsense, or on things the animals themselves could care less about. I'm not so over-the-top "squishy" that it's harmful (like farm-haters, Peta, and the idiots who want to ban the carriage industry in NYC, for example), that I have no actual knowledge and no concept of the consequences of my actions. What I have is experience and empathy. What I have is the basic belief that if you are causing an animal pain, emotional distress and physical dysfunction, something is intrinsically wrong with what you are doing. It's common friggin' sense.

I used to ride saddleseat. You probably knew that, but what you may not have known was that I LOVED it! It used to be kind of THE way to ride, especially if you had a Morgan, and I did. It was pure joy, both for me AND my horse. Full disclosure here: I didn't do a ton of showing and I certainly wasn't anything special on any show circuit (my family wasn't 'horsey' so the opportunities were few) but I jumped on every opportunity I had. Back then, only the park-type Morgans had special shoes, and the height and weight were very limited. Most of us stuck to the pleasure division, and it was a perfect fit. We learned how to ride in the best way to help our horse, and we were taught to have very, very light hands. I always remember Morgans being super versatile, and having just enough spring in their step to be kind of cool. I loved the naturally high head carriage too (it made it feel weird to ride the long, thoroughbred-y types later!). And that was kind of the thing~the natural awesomeness of the horse. And that was the emphasis; Morgans were a 'natural' horse, and (with the exception of park horses) it was almost a sacrilege to interfere with that. They were rugged, cheerful and spirited little horses that lived primarily outdoors, well-suited to the harsh Vermont climate, and they worked hard and carried their people all over the place. I used to trail ride like it was my job, and there was no place my Morgan wouldn't take me.

Fast forward to today. I like to poke around on the internet (read:procrastinate) and think about what my next incarnation as "horse owner" would look like. I looked into Morgans, showing and saddleseat. Holy. Crap. The entire scene is unrecognizable, and it's only been about 30 years. All the show horses are being trained with their heads tied back to their saddles (WTF is THAT?!). I'm no stranger to judiciously-applied side-reins and such, but GEEZ. I even saw a photo of a Morgan out on a dirt road "trail riding" (sorry, no) with it's head tied back to the saddle. The pleasure horses don't look much different to me than the park horses, and both are sporting outrageously long hooves. The hunters look like saddleseat horses (long hooves and all) in hunter tack. If you or anybody you know rides actual hunters, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hard to describe. And the riders are riding (really bad chair-seat) saddleseat in hunter tack, but with really flat hands. I watched a couple of videos of in-hand classes too, to see what they were looking like these days, and it was more of the same; horses with outrageously-high, fixed head carriage, huge muscle development on the underside of their necks (used to be a big no-no) and hollow backs; anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of equine physiology knows that the only way a horse can sustain an unnaturally high head carriage is to drop and hollow their back. It makes the back weak and sore, and it's especially shameful when it's caused by something people are doing. Maybe for the folks who are in it or raised in it it's no biggie. It's something they are used to seeing and I'm sure there are reasons for...all that...that I just don't understand (or want to, really). from the perspective of someone who was away for awhile, it certainly showcases the way things can evolve to an unhealthy extreme.

If you know horses, then you know that one of the most basic necessities of being a horse is mobility. It is what they are physically and psychologically made for. If you take that away by constant stabling and extreme shoeing you are taking away the thing that is of the utmost importance to your horse. To take that away causes an extreme amount of stress (and often ulcers). To a horse, mobility is survival; it's who they are. I don't care how pampered they are in their jail cells, it's still jail. Movement and social contact is what horses want. Being fussed over in a stall where you spend 23 hours of your day doesn't mean sh**. Most people these days are pretty aware of this.

I SO loved the Morgan breed (still do) and after the initial shock wore off, what I felt was crazy-sadness. I wrote to the AMHA and asked if there was a place for folks who used to ride like I did. The (quick and helpful) response assured me that I would fit nicely in the Classic English Pleasure division; that horses in this division were flat-shod, had turn out and went trail riding. I got a little excited, until further exploration turned up videos of  Classic English Pleasure horses in training...with their heads tied back to their saddles. No. Just..no. A WORLD of f***ing NO. The registration numbers are down as are the show numbers, and yet this is the direction that today's stewards of this amazing breed want to go for show horses. To be fair, for folks who aren't interested in the breed shows, the AMHA has a lot to offer, including a program for folks who are entirely non-competitive. They are also really terrific at answering questions, and do so very quickly. That's working. Morgan horses still rock at just about everything, and that's sill working too. But how much better it would be if we were still focusing on what is so great about our horses, instead of trying to shape them into some some sub-par extreme.

Like I said, I loved riding saddleseat. These days, the clothing is SO much more fun and the saddles are SO much better! They are actually grippy and you can move the stirrup bars where you need them! Me and my short legs would have really appreciated that 'back in the day'. It was such a fun and joyful discipline, and I so loved the opportunity to show off my wonderful horse. I bet a lot of folks would enjoy it that way too. Having said that, the number of folks willing to do what they need to do to be successful in the showring in it's current incarnation is (thankfully) dwindling as we learn more about what horses need to be healthy and happy. I would love it if the show horse world would evolve in that direction, and I bet it would draw a whole new crop of enthusiastic showers (and a few of us old ones as well). In my perfect world, horse shows would showcase the wonderful, natural attributes that captured our attention and led us to love our breeds in the first place. Riders would be taught to ride in balance. Shoeing would be something we do to protect the hoof and have nothing whatsoever to do with changing movement (other than corrective). Hoof-length would be determined by natural need and health of the animal. Naturally high head carriage and knee action would be just that, and only ever enhanced by the natural joy and exuberance of the horse itself. Training would build the strength and endurance of the horse, not break it down by forcing it into a specific shape. Standing wraps would no longer be necessary because horses would be allowed to move. No more hollow backs and upside down necks, just well-developed, healthy happy animals moving cheerfully around the ring, representing the REAL best of their breeds, instead of an artificially-enhanced caricature. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty great to me!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Labels

Photo: www.sharenator.com
Some days I sign into Facebook, and my first impulse is to sign back out again. I probably should, anyway. It's a procrastination tool more than anything else sometimes, and Lord knows I don't need any more challenges to my focus. But I use it for marketing and to keep in touch with so many people that I don't really want to let it go. I LOVE seeing what my friends are doing, seeing their families and being at least a peripheral part of my friends' lives. I love my friends, and they are a kooky, interesting and diverse blend of awesome most of the time.

Sometimes though, Facebook can provide insight into people that is a little disheartening. It's okay though, I mean, we are all on our own journey, at different places in our lives and in our minds. It's part of the human experience. Some of my friends (quite a few, actually) are younger than me and in places I used to be. Sometimes, that's the hardest thing to observe from the sidelines. Suddenly, people my age with my beliefs are this, that and the other thing. If I believe this, I most assuredly must believe that as well. Blah, blah blah. If one were to believe the propaganda, most people are doing everything wrong and need to be flogged. The rest (and the righteous) are going to start a gosh-darned revolution. Gee, I've never heard THAT before. Nope.

I've been there. I've been young and passionate about everything. I know what it's like to feel a deep-seated rage at the way things are, to feel a need to clarify who I am and what I'm about (though admittedly, and in hindsight, that was as much for my own clarity and understanding as for anybody else). I'm still passionate and angry in my own way, but I've come to understand that identity is fluid and growth is inevitable. I don't limit myself with labels anymore, and I won't accept those of anybody else, either. F*** your labels. They are meaningless. And they can make us insta-stupid. I will use Bernie Sanders as an example (calm down, just an example! Though I do support him). Some folks are all "Ohmagawd! He's a socialist!" and others are all "Ohmagawd! he's not even a real socialist!"  and then all manner of articles and whatnot are written about the myriad of ways that Mr. Sanders is/isn't a socialist (Oooh! Shiney!) while everybody completely misses the actual, relevant points (You know, what he's done, what he's doing, his record. Sigh.) It's exactly what we do to each other; we label and make assumptions, we get hung up on the most irrelevant things. In doing so we become blind to the meaningful, relevant reality. One of the joys of getting older and seeing a few things is the liberating acknowledgement that all of us are flawed, and the journey we are responsible for is our own. We don't get to impose our labels on other people, either with sweeping (and wildly inaccurate) generalities, or misunderstanding.

And here's the real kicker: The more labels we use to define ourselves and others, the more we create a divide. Labels are used to differentiate one thing from another; counterproductive when the point is unity. The point IS unity, right? I look at you and I see a human being, I see a face, eyes, a soul. Why is anything else relevant? Can we just be human? Can we just connect with each other on that level? Now THAT would be a revolution. Eliminating labels eliminates barriers, boundaries and blame. But then where would we direct our rage? Who would we blame for our unhappiness? Our feelings of being disenfranchised? I feel it sometimes. Less so now, but I understand. There is still plenty in this world that needs fixing and plenty to be angry about. But what's the goal? Is it to piss off allies and alienate people? Does anybody KNOW the goal? Aside from rage and blame, what exactly, is being done to reach the goal? (FYI: rage and blame are not a plan. They are a catalyst, a valid way to get attention so that a plan may be implemented. You DO have a plan, right?). I know that you all have to do what you've got to do. Though the enthusiasm and passion of youth isn't always productively aimed, it usually manages to  get something done in spite of itself. It would be a pretty crappy world if nobody cared about injustice, and in that regard I applaud your enthusiasm.

Just don't label me, and don't you dare make assumptions about people, just because their journey doesn't look like yours. Isn't that doing to others what you are angry about people doing to you? People care and act in different ways and that's for a damned good reason. Sometimes, you have to meet things where they are to implement change; you have to begin a dialog, listen as well as speak. But hey, I wouldn't have listened either. Just don't judge me (or do, I really don't care) for not doing things your way.