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.
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.”
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.
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.
Photo cred. Beth Woolfolk