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The Gray Space
This morning as I walked outside with my dog and looked up into the warm California sun, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for the beautiful start of the day and the feeling of peace that washed over me. It is important for me to be grateful for the moment, knowing as I do that life is a journey full of challenges and that happiness can be fleeting. We all struggle sometimes. Even the busiest social butterfly can battle feelings of loneliness and abandonment. In these days of pandemics and enforced isolation, the need for a feeling of connection can be intense.
At the end of every workday, I head to the barn to give Trudy her supplemental feed. Some days she’s in training and learning how to be ridden, learning how to interpret the squeeze of a rein or a touch of a leg. These days we spend a lot of time teaching her that when a rider asks her to “go” it doesn’t automatically mean “go fast”. There is so much for a young horse to learn.
On days when she is not in training, I spend extra time with her and try to make sure she gets some easy exercise. She gets released from the confines of her stall and the two of us stroll around the property. We whisper secrets to each other. Sometimes I sing to her though she does not always appreciate my song choice and looks at me incredulously with that side eye of hers. When we get to the paddock, I let her loose to amble and run, to play and just be a horse.
There are days I just put my hands on her and breathe her in and tell her how much I love her until the stress of my day fades away and nothing else matters.
The barn is now, as it was when I was a child, a refuge. As a young girl learning to ride horses, I trained hard and loved cantering endlessly and sailing atop my horse over higher and higher jumps. I didn’t appreciate the barn chores as much as I do now, but I’d still spend hours doing whatever I was asked just so I could stay. My trainers were generally kind and pushed me to improve, occasionally yelling at me, but only if I was not paying attention or potentially putting myself in danger. The barn made sense. It felt safe. It was full of life and connection and everything my home was not.
The dangers at home were more covert and considerably more perilous. A wise person learned to read the signs and avoid triggering a violent eruption. A wise person assessed how much alcohol was visible and measured how much had been consumed as a gauge of the present danger. A wise person knew it was vital to watch what the day held for a mentally ill brother because you couldn’t ask any questions, no matter how confused or frightened you felt, because nobody wanted to talk about it. One wrong step could be devastating. It was like walking across a field of broken glass in bare feet.
Horses, dancing, swim team, dive team, softball, theater, and choir all kept me busy. Riding, rehearsals, practice, meets, games, and performances all kept me away from the house, and out of the line of fire. Constant exhausting activity helped mask the loneliness I felt so deeply.
My mother would check her watch as she dropped me at one activity or another. She tried to hide her impatience with me and my constant transportation needs but the telltale pulsing of her jaw muscles as she ground her teeth gave her away.
Looking back now I believe her impatience was not so much with me but with her own life, with the pain and isolation she felt as she tried to defuse and manage the unpredictable alcohol infused rages of her husband and the silent agony of watching her youngest son, her blonde baby boy, drifting away into a hell of schizophrenia.
She worked full time and managed four children. Her work ethic and constant activity masking her own solitude and loneliness. Her perfectly tidy house, obscuring the emotional wreckage that resided there. But that pulsing jaw always gave her away. She never asked for anything and though I wanted to help her, I didn’t know how.
Why is it when we most need shelter, nowhere at all feels safe? When we are lost in the gray space of isolation, the connection we crave so deeply can seem unattainable. Where can we go to feel, even for a moment, connected to another living soul? Can it be found scuba diving the world’s oceans? Or traveling for adventure to remote locations around the globe? Or by becoming a different person and stepping into another world on stage? Maybe. I tried all of those and more. But once you hold still, once you are quiet in your own space and your own skin, you can begin to see what you really need. It starts with forgiveness, mostly for yourself. And finding that place you can go when you need that soul connection.
For me, it is now as it was when I was a girl, the barn.
And so, I rest my hand over Trudy’s heart, feeling her pulse and burying my face in her neck, I breathe her in. And for that brief moment in time, I am not alone.
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