A lie I cannot tell

It happened during one of my early riding lessons. My mother had grown up with a strong love for horses and an equally strong desire for a horse of her own. Once they had some land, she and my father managed to find a couple of horses that sorely needed a home and got two ponies thrown in to boot. My sister and I inherited our mother’s love, although perhaps to a lesser degree, and eventually I found myself at a proper stable taking proper riding lessons.

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Love horses though I might, I was also terrified of the creatures. A complicated relationship, I know. But allow me to explain. Not long after my parents first got horses, I witnessed my mother take a spectacular tumble that landed her in the hospital. I was probably four or five at the time, which means my sister was only one or two. My parents were riding the horses in my grandparents’ large field while my sister and I played on the screened porch at the edge of the field, watched by Granny and Grandad. My parents galloped across the dried grass, really letting the horses stretch their legs. Something suddenly spooked my mother’s horse at the far edge of the field, right by a cluster of pines. She took off, bucking and rearing. I watched as my mother was thrown from the saddle.

I don’t remember the exact details of what followed, but I do know that my sister and I began to cry, pressed against the screens, trying to get to our mother. I remember watching my father lift my mother up and carry her across the field. I don’t recall how they got the hospital. I do remember being terrified, as any child would be when a parent crumbles to the ground.

So you see, from a very young age I knew spending time with horses could result in significant injury. And thus I approached my own riding lessons fascinated but trembling. My riding teacher instantly picked up on that fear. She had a solution. She asked me to repeat one phrase in my head, over and over, as I mounted the horse and as we circled the arena: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

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As a child, I took everything I was asked to do quite seriously. And so I approached this assignment with full dedication. I can imagine what I looked like – a little tow-headed sprite in a huge helmet and hand-me-down riding clothes, eyes bugging out, lips practically forming the words: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

The thing is, it didn’t really work. Because, even then, I knew it wasn’t true. I had watched my mother fly off a horse and be unable to walk back across the field. And while my parents carefully monitored our media intake, I had once walked in on my grandparents watching the news and seen footage of the Gulf War that haunted me for months after. Horrible things happened in the universe. That was the truth and I knew it.

I understand my riding teacher’s desire to reassure me. I experience the same desire as I prepare my daughter for bed every single night. We wander her room slowly, saying goodnight to books, toys, pictures and animal friends. We close the curtains and I hold her. I don’t know what she understands; she has only spoken one word definitely attached to its object at this point: “Mama”. But I talk to her. I tell her I hope she has a cozy sleep with sweet dreams. I thank her for a lovely day and mention some of the things we did. And somewhere in my mind, I remember my own childhood fear of the dark. I want to reassure her, just as my riding teacher reassured me years ago. I want to tell her that she is always safe, that the world is a safe and friendly place.

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But the words stick in my throat because I cannot speak them honestly and I will not lie to her. At first, this left me feeling quite helpless. I’m sure all parents experience that moment, when they realize they cannot completely ensure their child’s safety in this uncontrollable world.

But I have found my way through that discomfort, at least for the time being. I have found the truth I can share with my daughter. I cannot tell her that she will always be safe. I cannot even tell her that I will always be able to keep her safe. But she can know that she is loved. She is so very loved, by so many wonderful people. She can feel that love and carry it with her through the night and, someday, out into the world and wherever she goes.

And she can know joy. I cannot stop her from being afraid. Nor would I want to. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is learning to be with fear and move forward all the same. My daughter will certainly know fear, but I hope she also knows unbounded joy. May she delight in the world so utterly that the joy of it carries her and buoys her even in the face of all that is terrible.

And so I kiss her and send her to her dreams. No, the universe isn’t safe and friendly. But it is also a place full of joy. And you are loved beyond measure.

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Photo cred. Beth Woolfolk

Thoughts on the day a budget is released

I don’t know about you, but here are some things I care about:

I care about the natural world (in case that’s not already more than evident through my previous posts here). Nothings uplifts me more than coming around a bend in the woods to suddenly glimpse a great beam of light slanting between tall trees. Nothing. Unless it’s filling my lungs with the crisp air of fall, or listening to waves pound sand, or smelling moist, steamy, freshly thawed earth after a spring rain. And then, of course, there is the fact that we are part of the natural world. What we do to that world, we do to ourselves.

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I care about people caring about each other. Positively contributing to the lives of others fills me with a sense of purpose. Receiving help, well, that’s edgy for me but I’m working on it and it certainly is appreciated. And I love witnessing unlikely candidates coming together in supportive community.

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I care about creativity. There is quote pinned to the board over my desk. It reads: “The creative adult is the child who survived.” (I don’t know where it came from.) Children see possibility wherever they go. Creativity is about moving towards that possibility. Boy, does it take courage sometimes. And to really dive into what might be possible, you kind of have to drop all comparisons, don’t you? But all I have to do is make a quick scan of history to see that many of the most important and lasting contributions to this world were developed through some sort of creative process. Creativity leads to innovative solutions. Artistic expression fosters connection on an emotional level and cultivates understanding. I’ve seen these things to be true.

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I care about equal rights and access. I cannot imagine looking into my daughter’s big, beautiful eyes and seeing hunger that I could not feed, or knowing that she was cold because I could not heat our house, or being unable to provide her with a house or an education or medicine or my time. And that just speaks to the financial aspect of equality. What if she felt threatened or less-than simply because of who she was or who she loved? No way. No one is less-than, except perhaps those who live in such fear of someone else that they believe they must strip that person of respect and rights.

Sure, I care about safety. But without all of the above, what is the point? What am I protecting if my life and the lives of those around me are devoid of meaning? If all the juicy, beautiful, messy and important aspects of life were gone, would we want to live it at all?

These are the thoughts that pound through my head, through my being really, on this day, the day our dear president released his proposed budget. And so I pick up the phone and I call my representatives, and I raise my voice, and I look for other ways to act. And I commit to making sure, making damn sure, that these things continue to flourish in my home and my community and wherever I can promote them. Because my country will celebrate these bright, beautiful things.

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Where my heart belongs

This afternoon, our nine month old daughter and I watched through the window as three young deer picked their way across our yard, nibbling grass in the places where the recent thaw laid the ground bare of snow. My daughter was enthralled, the frozen teething toy clutched in her hands forgotten as she watched, wide-eyed. My focus flitted back and forth between the visitors outside and my daughter’s stare. I longed to know what she was thinking.

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Minutes earlier, we had been out in the yard and the woods at its edge. My little one stopped every few feet to plop down on her bottom and run her hands through dead leaves or pine needles or over rocks. Occasionally, when her excitement peaked, she let out an exclamation – “Oh!”. As I watched her little fingers thread through moss, I again wished I could hear her thoughts.

I don’t remember the moment I fell in love with the outside world. The connection, fundamental to my identity, must have developed at a time beyond the stretches of my memory. All I know is that it has always been the place where I feel most at home and most alive. Wherever I have lived or traveled, I have sought the “wild” spaces, for it is there that I find true calm.

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These days, I am blessed to live surrounded by natural beauty. Daily, I find myself pausing in the midst of rushing from here to there because I’ve stumbled across another one of those views that demands attention, no matter how many times I’ve passed it before.

My relationship with the rest of the natural world has shifted, however. It remains my solace, the one place that always reminds me of who I am and the thing that comes closest to whispering about the meaning of life. And yet I know nature is suffering. Along with anyone else who is open to the truth, I feel the shift in the climate and the increasing pace of that shift. And, hard as it might be, I seek to educate myself about climate change and what it means for the future.

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Joanna Macy, a great environmental activist and Buddhist, once said: “…there’s absolutely no excuse for making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. This moment, you’re alive.” I turn to those words with increasing frequency because I feel their resonance. Yes, I love the world, the natural world, passionately. And this, coupled with my deep love for my daughter, makes witnessing the suffering of that world and our role in that suffering, my role in that suffering, incredibly painful.

And yet, it is a pain I should feel. It is a pain I must feel. Those of us who were blessed enough to be raised with that passionate love for the natural world that Macy describes, those of us who appreciate that we are a part of that world and thereby suffer alongside it, those of us who look at the waving pines and feel both delight and a tinge of heartsick, we must allow ourselves to feel that pain alongside our love. We must feel that pain and then we must act.

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It’s complicated, to be sure. The truth of that complication pierces me to the bone when I watch my daughter fall in love with the world, as I did at her age. My heart flies out of my chest and I realize it never really belonged there in the first place. It belongs to my daughter, to all my loved ones and, most definitely, to the beautiful wild world. And the truth of the complication is this: I must recognize that I am a part of why the world suffers today and why my child’s future stands on increasingly fragile ground.

The only way I know how to hold that complication is to act. I seek solutions, I advocate on behalf of the Earth, I attempt to honestly evaluate and change my own behaviors, and I hope to inspire others to do the same. And whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed, I bundle up my daughter and get outside, out into the heart of it, into the most beautiful of natural places and connect to the love that started it all in the first place.

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