Saturday, January 2, 2010

The First Simple Question

Sisters of My Heart
This collection of writings is dedicated to the women who have impacted my life as a wife, mother, teacher and doula.
They have enlightened me, empowered me, guided me, enriched me, infuriated me, informed me, set incredibly high standards for me to adhere to, uplifted and inspired me.
Each one has been a gift in the crazy quilt of my life.
To honor them I pass bits and scraps of their gifts to me on to other women passing through my life.
In each piece in this collection I will attempt to illuminate how the threads of their stories wove into the fabric of my life.
The First Simple Question

I knew what I wanted to do with my life from the time I was in junior high. That was the year I first rode a horse. My friend Denise had turned to me in Intro to Algebra and asked, "Do you want to rent horses from Grizzly Stables in Tilden Park and go riding with me on Saturday?"

Having read all the Black Stallion books and being completely horse crazy I enthusiastically said, "yes!"

You have to understand that all my riding up to that moment had been in my dreams. Denise, on the other hand, was an experienced rider having ridden at Shady Lawn summer camp every summer. So I had no idea when I put my foot into the stirrup and mounted up that morning that I was about to change my life. We started up the trail at a walk, Denise in the lead. I liked the feeling of being up high, looking out at the distant grass covered golden California hills and feeling the horse move underneath me.

When we had ridden out of sight of the livery barn Denise twisted around to face me in her saddle and said to me, "Do you want to gallop?"

Being a risk averse person I felt this was unwise and said, "No, I'm doing fine just walking."

"OK. That's fine. You keep walking and I'll just gallop ahead," and with a quick flick of her split reins onto her horse's solid rump off she went.

I quickly learned that Denise was not as experienced a horseman as she had led me to believe because any real horseperson knows horses are herd animals, and the horses in a rental string have a very strong herd bond. So as her horse's tail began to disappear down the dusty trail I felt my horse quicken his pace and within moments he had taken off in hot pursuit of his buddy.

At first I panicked, pulling on the reins and gripping my legs as tightly as I could to the stiff leather of the western saddle. As my horse caught up to his "herd" of one I felt him slacken his pace and he settled into a rolling canter. I relaxed my death grip, held onto the saddle horn and let the sensation of all that powerful muscle movement lifting me up and swinging me down flow through my body. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I was hooked; a riding junkie, addicted for life.

That wasn't the moment I knew though. No, I was still blissfully unaware of my purpose calling to me. It was later that night when I knew in my core that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Denise and I had returned the horses to the barn and had happily gone on with our day. As evening approached the soreness and stiffness of my first horse adventure began to settle over me. I pushed it to the back of my mind and went busily off to a neighbor's to baby sit their three kids. After fixing dinner, playing games, giving baths and tucking kids into bed I lay down on the couch to wait for the parents to arrive back home. As I began to drift into the space that lies between being fully awake and fully asleep I was suddenly transported back into the saddle and re-experienced through the very cells of my body the delicious motion of the lift and swing of cantering on horseback. It was the most vivid and powerful sensation I had ever experienced. In an instant I felt each muscle group responding to the swinging rhythm of the horse, felt the air moving past my face, saw the scenery sliding past, heard the beat of the hooves in the soft dirt and the creak of the Western saddle as my body moved in time with my horse. That was the moment when I knew, and the power of riding first revealed itself to me.

Later would come devoting all my earnings to buying my first horse, many hours of hard work in and out of the saddle, the choice to go to riding school instead of college, and hours upon hours, miles upon miles spent in the joyous pursuit of attaining physical harmony with a horse. Eventually my hunt for equestrian perfection carried me across the country and landed me in St. Mary's County in rural southern Maryland.

One of the things a professional horseperson has to come to accept is that with horses comes pain and injury. For most of us it isn't pain from the big accidents, although there will be big accidents along the way, it is everyday pain from the everyday stress and strain of our bones, muscles and ligaments shaping to and encouraging the movement of the horses we ride. Concussion is part of the puzzle but it is only one piece. The combination of absorbing the concussion while maintaining our body posture and influencing the directional flow of the horse's body is what slowly, bit by bit, trot step by trot step, tears away at our body's integrity.

We learn to go on after the big accidents, we "recover" and get back to riding; carrying our scars and imbalances in secret stiffnesses and pain filled sleepless nights. Some of us become pain pill addicts. Others try to just bear it and go on; slowly becoming twisted versions of our former selves. The point is always to get back on. I had always gotten back on, through a broken tailbone, sprained ankles, smashed feet, cracked teeth, and a smashed kneecap. But now I was struggling to "recover" from a torn ligament in my back which held one of my vertebras in place. I was back to riding of course, but the pain was constant and I feared it might win this time.

So when I sat in the shady pine trees on Carolyn's farm after giving her daughter a lesson and she asked me what appeared to be a simple question, "What do you want to do with your life if you can't ride horses?" I didn't have an answer. The question depressed me. I couldn't imagine anything else I could have as much passion for as the horses. And passion was at the heart of the question. I knew Carolyn was really asking me what could I love doing as much, what could I throw myself into in the same way, what could I devote my life to? I knew this because my friend Carolyn believes in creating a life around your passion.

Carolyn Egeli is an artist. She comes from a family of artists; her parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. She has always made her living as an artist. She paints beautiful landscapes, portraits and marines. Her home is an elegant retreat on the banks of Herring Creek. Her hospitality a combination of conservative southern charm and quirky artist. She has lived a daring life for a woman from Valley Lee; always a woman, always a mother, and for me a mentor. She had invited me into her home. Welcomed me into her sunlit studio. Shared her most precious possession with me her daughter, Jennifer. Many an afternoon I left my boots in her mud room and sat warming myself with a cup of tea at her sturdy kitchen table on a cold fall or winter day after giving Jennifer a riding lesson on her bay pony. We talked about our lives, horses, kids and husbands.

She had grown up a devout Christian Scientist and, as such, was the first woman I knew to have given birth at home; her mother her only birth attendant. She shared with me that before her first birth she had read all the "latest" books on how to birth using Lamaze techniques but when it came time to push she made no progress. Her mother advised her, in no uncertain terms, to stop putting her head to her chest and pushing in that unnatural position; lay back and birth your baby. Listening to her mother and her body she had born two children at home.

She was also the first woman I personally watched recover from a Cesarean Section. During the time period I spent with Carolyn she had moved away from the church and was no longer a practicing Christian Scientist. So for her last birth, with a new husband and at an older age, Carolyn had agreed to give birth in the local hospital. Wisely, since kids were still in my future to come, she never shared much with me about the experience except for her panic as the anesthesia took effect during the operation itself. She never spoke of it, but I could sense her deep sadness about the birth and also her anger. She knew birth wasn't meant to be that way and didn't have to be that way.

I learned so many things from her about life and living, mothering and being true to your passion; lessons passed effortlessly through example and simple friendship. So when she asked, "What do you want to do with your life if you can't ride horses?" I knew this wasn't a simple question. I wouldn't have an answer for her for another 10 years. Not until I had another experience powerful enough to change my life forever, the birth of my son at Sierra Vista Hospital.

I am proud to have had Carolyn Egeli as a friend and to have two of her beautiful paintings to treasure in my home. To learn more about Carolyn and view her beautiful art please go to:
When I saw the photograph of her on her home page standing before her easel, brush in hand, her passion for life shining through her glowing smile time stood still for me.

Thank you Carolyn.

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