For Max, wherever you are

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I lost my cat.  They tell you not to let your cat out of the house when you move for at least two weeks because, as territorial creatures adverse to change, a cat will not understand that the new place is his home and will become hopelessly lost.  They also tell you that surrounding him with items from home at the new house will ease the transition.

I brought items from home.  I slept with extra t-shirts and towels for several days so they would be infused with my smell and I lined the cat carriers with them.  I bought new toys two weeks ahead of time so they would become familiar and I scattered them around the new house.  I got Xanax from the vet because our last move with the cats didn’t go that well.  Like they tell you, I kept the cats only in the new bedroom at first, allowing them to slowly acclimate to a limited territory.  I plugged in a very expensive diffuser of cat-friendly hormones as I tossed around the new toys.  I stayed with the cats, sitting in the bedroom with them for 20 hours to help ease their anxiety.

I was fully prepared to keep the cats indoors for two weeks, although I thought it might kill me.  My cats were outdoor cats, trotting off each day after breakfast to enjoy their wild territory, trotting back in at 5 for dinner every night.  Despite the pheromones and the drugs and the smelly t-shirts and the toys and my company, my cats weren’t adjusting well.  They howled all night long.  They traded off, one getting quiet for a while just as the other picked it up.  Cat howls are impossible to ignore or to sleep through.

The next day, they were mostly relaxed and quiet and snoozed in their comfy crates.  By dark, they wound themselves up again to howl all night a second time.

I love my cats.  I am sentimental and hopeless in my love for my animals.  But I thought about killing them.  I thought about giving them away or putting them to sleep.  I thought about a lot of ugly, ugly things around 3 am that second night, ruefully grateful that I did not have a colicy infant on my hands.

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The second morning, I arose around 5, in the dark.  There was no point to the whole bed thing.  I opened the front door to put an unwanted rug out on the stoop.  My husband made an inarticulate noise behind me and my boy cat Max shot out the door.  Into the pitch dark.  As I recoiled in horror, his sister Lily launched herself at the closed screen door and popped it open, running out into the yard.  Lily took one look around and came zooming back to the door, meowing wildly to get back in.  I have not seen Max again.

Fast forward.  As I write this, it is 37 days since I lost Max.  I have learned more about lost cats than I knew was possible to learn.  There are several websites and a very friendly chat group devoted to the behavior of cats when they are lost and tips for recovering them.  It turns out most cats will not set out to make an Incredible Journey to their old home.  Rather, they will immediately find a safe place to hide in their unfamiliar territory and go into super-stealth mode.  I read and was told that most cats will hide like this for weeks before they start venturing out again to look for food.  Deep in survival mode, overcome with their instincts, they will not come when you call, they will not come to the door, they will not meow and reveal their location, and they may well ignore all the tasty food you can offer.  I read and was told stories of cats lost in circumstances like ours who were not seen for weeks and even months and then suddenly reappeared, alive, strong and self-possessed.

So I have not given up on Max, I’ve been doing what they say to do.  I bought and borrowed live traps and set them in likely locations filled with tuna.  I spoke to my new neighbors, even the ones with the shuttered windows, no mailbox and no front door.  I hung my dirty clothes around the edges of the property to give it the smell of home.  When the traps were untouched (not even a raccoon???), I gave up and set up a feeding station and purchased an infrared motion-activated game camera to watch over it.  I searched in my neighbors’ barns and sheds and in the woods in back.  I kept refreshing the dirty laundry and put out fresh tuna every night.  No one ate the food I set out (not even a raccoon???) and no one appeared on my game camera, except for my dog and one magpie.

And I cried.  I sobbed so hard I thought I might be sick.  Often.  If you have lost pets,  and if you are in the least bit sentimental about them, you know the keen, eviscerating pain of their absence.  The bowl you’re not filling at dinner time, the special spot that is not being sat in.  The particular gesture and facial expression you are not seeing.

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The loss of Max coincided with the devastating loss of my home and the two were almost more than I could bear.  Organs vital to my existence had been torn away and, maybe worst of all, it was all my fault.  I moved us from home and I failed Max.  My husband feared for my mental health.  I did, too, but I was too busy hanging up dirty laundry and crying to care very much.

After four weeks, I had seen nothing to indicate that Max was nearby.  I was running out of things to do.  Don’t give up, my chat room people said, lots of people don’t see their cats for months and then they show up.  Keep trying, they said.

Then it snowed.  Just a little dusting.  I was sitting dully with my morning tea, empty eyes fixed on the window when I thought about tracks.  Tell-tale footprints in the snow.  I’m sorry, I said to my husband, I know you want me to get past this, but I need to try one more thing.  I need to look for footprints in the snow.  He agreed with me, and in fact he joined me.  I texted my neighbors to ask for permission to look for tracks on their properties.  My sweet neighbor Margo gave permission and decided to go out and look herself.

I saw some tracks.  I saw a few tracks that looked awfully like a cat in a couple of places around the edge of the property.  Husband saw a couple promising ones, too.  And then we heard from Margo.  She texted a photo of a clear line of what could be nothing but cat tracks winding around her house and patio.  No other cat had ever appeared in all my doings during the day or to eat my tuna or get its picture taken at night–if these really were cat tracks, they must be Max’s.

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We went into action.  Margo put out dishes of tuna along the route the tracks took.  We bought another game camera and set both up along the route.  And we waited.  Nothing.

Then the weather came in.  More snow and bone-chilling, unrelenting cold.  Those tracks haunted me–a solo cat searching for something in the dark.  Alone and facing devastating cold.  I turned one of the traps into a warm box by tying its door open, wrapping it in a waterproof sheet and filling it with towels and hay.  I set this along with more food and the camera near Margo’s door.  The snow came.  The cold.

Enough snow fell to discourage a small cat from walking very far.  It came with the kind of cold that must be able to take his ears or his toes.  There have been no new signs of Max for four days.

Don’t give up, the chat room people say.  Once some tiny kittens survived in a blizzard. They say a cat survived for more than a year alone in Vermont.  Cats are amazing, they say, he can survive.

I wish Max had been run over or eaten by a coyote.  Actually, I wish he was here with me right now, putting one of his arms across mine to make it hard to type, eyes mostly closed as the fire pops.  But if I knew he were dead, at least I would be able to mourn him and stop worrying and strategizing.  As it is, I cannot shake the image of him out there, stressed and cold and hungry.  Alone for the first time in his life.  I can’t stop wracking my brain for what else to do to help him survive and bring him back home.  I can’t stop abusing myself for failing to protect him and failing to rescue him.  For thinking such hateful thoughts about him hours before he disappeared.

They say I should hope, they say it will all work out.  Keep trying.  But don’t obsess, says Husband, don’t be so hard on yourself.  I listen and I try to do what they say.  Surely some day I will know where he is or I will figure out how to give up.  Some day I’ll feel at home again and Max may be with me, or not.  But that’s not today.

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Dislocation

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I am dislocated.  As from the medieval Latin, I have been moved from my proper place and position, my normal arrangement has been disturbed.  Synonymously, I have been disrupted, thrown into disarray, disorganized and confused.  These things have happened to me, my passive voice little more than flotsam on a strange sea.

We left our home.  The land we lived on for 11 years, the home we built and finished into contentment.  The place our animals have known as home for all or most of their lives.  It’s simple, really: we couldn’t find adequate jobs in the rural area we lived in, but we found good ones in the urban area we left over a decade ago.  So we did what so many do every day: we moved to find professional opportunity.

But that is the end of simplicity.  Moving is a nightmare.  Moving is stressful and exhausting and painful.  It’s certainly harder with livestock and ranch equipment as part of the mix.  So there’s that.

But this is about something else.  I knew it would be hard work to move.  I didn’t know it would pull my heart through my chest wall and leave it thrashing on the ground like a trout yanked from its stream.

I didn’t appreciate how passionately in love I am with our home.  I didn’t know the lining of my intestines would hum and surge in longing for the particular sound of the breeze in my pines.  I didn’t know my lungs would collapse every time I thought of the view out my living room window.  I didn’t realize my skin would recoil from the foreign air, the wrong wind currents, the landscape that is not mine.

Decades ago, I saw an arthouse movie about an indigenous man in an arctic setting who was captured and put in a jail cell.  It was his first sojourn in a solid structure and the first time in his long life he could not see the sky.  He immediately began to die.  I don’t remember the name of the movie or what happened to him, but I think of him.  Of what happens when you are suddenly stripped of the environment that held you.

I’ve never lived at any one address for 11 years, other than my childhood home.  I’ve never pitched my back and my heart into a place like we did in building our homestead.  I’ve never designed a house and then seen it emerge raw and ready for tending like a greasy newborn.  I’ve never spent my hours and days in the company of the same trees, a revolving but familiar cast of wild animals, and a reliable splash of brilliant stars for 11 years straight.  I didn’t realize what had happened.

I am of that place and that place is of me.  I wrote an essay not long ago, called In the Company of Trees, in which I mused on the reasons for the strange but tangible affinity I felt for my immediate natural environment.  I wrote that my body and the trees around me contain the same top five elements, giving us a kinship not apparent on the surface.  I wrote about my shedding a skin cell, which disintegrated and gave up its prime elements to the tree’s roots, while I breathed in its pollen and oxygen and particles of bark.  Over time, our bodies leaned toward each other.

Torn away, I am bereft.  Sick and empty in the middle.  I don’t think I’ll die of it, but I can see how it’s possible.  I can now understand the desperation of people pushed or ripped from their ancestral homes.  The anguish of thousands of refugees who are so much more dislocated than I, in such dire circumstances.  The land we love is another organ, the loss of which can lead to internal hemorrhage.

Over time, the pain will subside.  The connection will grow distant.  I will mingle my atoms with other places.  That fact in itself makes my chest clench.  Something that can be gotten over diminishes in importance.  I don’t want to get over it.

I will not change the name of my blog because in every important sense, I am still on Elk Meadow Road.  Husband and I will institute a new Thanksgiving-time toast: next year on Elk Meadow Road!  In the meantime, I keep Elk Meadow Road just as I cradle my liver.  I will slowly shed the atoms I picked up from my trees, scattering them in this new environment, but I vow to keep what I became there.

 

“Stay with him and wait”

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Bridger was nervous in the arena.  He was worried about the trash cans outside the fence, where black cats once popped out right under his nose like Halloween Jack-in-the-boxes.  He was skeptical about the safety of the dais at one end where judges looked down on the proceedings.  And he was seriously concerned about the staffer hosing down the alleyway next to the arena.  The shadowy figure, the hiss of the water, the spray and fleeing dust were dreadful to the young horse.

I rode him through our lesson, round and round and across the arena, urging him closer and closer to the worrisome spots while trying not to push him to panic stage.

We were working on some small circling maneuvers near the hose man.  I was keeping Bridger’s attention focused on a minute task in the presence of something scary, trying to take his mind off the threat.  Someday, hopefully, Bridger will look to me in these cases and take my lead on whether there is danger, but we’re not there yet.  He complied with my directions, but stayed alert to the dangerous situation next to us.

Suddenly, Bridger tucked his enormous haunches under himself and launched forward and sideways.  He worked so hard at his instantaneous spook that he let out a huge fart as he went.

My brain lags at these moments — it took me a few milliseconds to realize what was happening.  By the time I processed it, we had jumped halfway across the arena and he was trotting out the end of his spook.  I was securely in the middle of the saddle, hardly a hair out of place.

Here’s what I loved about this.  I was not afraid.  I sat deeply in the saddle and held on to the gullet.  When he was back on four feet, I calmly gathered the reins to prepare to slow him down or simply go on to the next thing.

As he launched into the air with his gaseous assist, my brain spoke very clearly: “stay with him and wait.”  I wasn’t sure what he was doing but I had learned not to panic.  I knew I needed to keep my balance and stay on the horse and that the moment would pass. I learned this the hard way.

Last summer, when Bridger gave out a much less impressive quasi-buck, my brain told me something else: “holy shit! disaster! abandon ship!”  So I did.  I thought his minor upheaval was the beginning of mayhem without end, and I fled.  And got a broken bone and several lasting bruises for my choice.

After months and months of dedicated effort, including a volume of tears and sweat, my instinctive brain was finally able to say something reasonable and helpful.  And correct.  Stay with him and wait.  So I did and all was well.

And now I go forth, hoping to do the same in whatever life throws at me.  Which looks to be quite a bit in the near future.  I hope to ride the upheavals as they go and wait for the moment when I can right the ship.  And keep my bones intact.

 

In Praise of Small Bites

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I’m a fan of the small-bites approach, to many things, but I suffer doubt whether it’s all that effective.  Our culture generally screams for the whole hog.  Go big or go home and that kind of thing.  Taking small, regular bites seems somehow weak, boring, un-American.  But now I’m convinced.

I used to go big most of the time.  Riding my bike up a steep section, I did it as fast as possible, both to conquer the challenge and to get the difficulty over with so I could rest on the downhill.  I cleaned the whole house in a flurry, and then did almost nothing for much too long.  I lived on an intensity-collapse cycle.  I got a lot of stuff done.

Then I started riding a young horse.  He freaked me out a couple of times with his power and independence.  When he was in a tough spot, going big was no longer an option.  Not for me.  If I bore down and pushed him through these things, he would likely have escalated further before we got through, and I was already past my limits.

On great advice, and with no other plan, I started on the small bite approach.  I worked with or rode him to the degree I could without going too far beyond my comfort zone.  That wasn’t very much at times.  Because it was emotionally so challenging, I couldn’t ride him for very long or do very much before I needed to regroup.  I noticed no change, my entire focus was getting out there and getting to that edge.

I was skeptical.  Small bites move slowly.  They are tedious.  Change is almost imperceptible.  Day after day, I still felt nervous, I still did small things.  The top of the hill stayed just out of sight.

The gradations of challenge with Bridger the colt go kind of like this: groundwork (unmounted) –> riding in the small round corral –> riding in the larger corral –> riding out on our 25-acre property –> riding out around the neighborhood.  At the start, I did 100% groundwork, and slowly started adding portions of the next steps.

Yesterday, I hardly did any groundwork, skipped the round pen, spent a few minutes riding in the corral and then spent most of the time on the road around the neighborhood.  I felt almost no nerves the entire time.  Suddenly, after all those tedious, tiny bites, change erupted.

I like small bites.  I clean my house a little bit every day (well, that’s the plan).  I tackle parts of chores and leave other parts for the next day.  I push quickly up the hill if I want my heart to beat faster, otherwise I stop and look around.  It really works.

 

The Om in Horsemanship


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It’s pouring down rain, so there won’t be much horsing around today.  My goal of riding Bridger every day as a cure for our woes is on pause this day.  But there’s plenty of time for thinking about horses and life and stuff.

Horseman Peter Campbell says something like “the problem is not the problem, your attitude about the problem is the problem.”

My “problem” with Bridger is very simple — there are things he needs to understand better and ideas he has that I’d rather he didn’t.  This wouldn’t be a problem at all except that the process of teaching and redirecting him can be scary because I sit on his back and he is large and powerful.

But even so, it’s my attitude that creates the problem.  When Bridger gets fractious or lost, there are a couple options.  If I were Buck Brannaman, I’d ride him right through it without blinking because I would know I could.  Or, I could see the issue developing, mindfully dismount and address it from the ground.  Neither is a problem.

What do I do?  Fear grabs me, or maybe frustration, and right behind come self-doubt, self-criticism, dismay and a bunch of other complicated emotions.  My muscles tighten, my mind trips offline.  I’m lost in a feeling storm, useless for giving my horse the direction and confidence he needs.  If I’m not careful, I can start blaming Bridger for the whole mess.  And voila — a real problem.

FDR would have answered Peter Campbell nicely, adding, for example, that all we have to fear is fear itself.  Or anger or jealousy or despair.  My yoga teachers would nod sagely — notice where your mind goes when your body is challenged, they say, is it necessary?

How many times a day do we create problems with our emotions and reactions where, in fact, there is simply a circumstance?

Yoga and horsemanship point me in the same direction: stick with exactly what is for a while and let the rest go.  Next time I get on Bridger’s back, I’ll be really trying to do just that.

Going Steady with Fear

I rode Bridger today.  You’ll understand something about that if you read this earlier post.  It means a lot.

Last summer, Bridger and I hit a big glitch in our progress.  I asked him for a little more than he was ready for, so he gave out a little buck, which was enough to unseat me, which was enough to crack my ulna.  Neither the buck nor the crack were such a big deal.  The killer was the fear that immediately colonized me.

Fear has not been a big thing with me.  Not on a conscious level, anyway.  I’ve had plenty of dicey moments on mountain bikes, on snow-covered slopes in the backcountry, with lightning on the alpine tundra, in class 4 river rapids after I fell out of the boat.  I’ve unexpectedly come much too close to male moose and grizzly bear cubs.  Each event had its adrenaline-soaked excitement and some hindsight shivers, but each easily became a great story to revisit over a beer.  Not so with my fall off Bridger.

I am inherently, helplessly scared of heights. I grow dizzy and watery too close to a precipitous fall.  I feel compelled to go over — if someone forced me to spend too long on a tiny ledge, I might have to plunge over.  So I do have that fear, but I handle it by simply avoiding the situation.  I tried rock climbing, which would have been a good match for my other mountain hobbies, but there wasn’t enough in it to overcome the visceral fear, so I left it behind.  I admire views from a safe distance.  I can’t leave Bridger behind or stay at a distance.

After my fall off Bridger, pictures of people riding horses made me queasy.  Being around my horses at feeding time gave me all-over prickles.  After my arm healed a little, I got on my older horse, Jack, who is as reliable, slow and calm as they come.  I felt sick and loose-limbed.  I shed tears.

I mostly got over it.  With the superb help of friends, a couple sports psychology books and patient Jack, it eased up and left me.  Meanwhile, Kathleen was busy helping Bridger get over his own problem.  Six months after the fall, I was riding Bridger in the backcountry on an unfamiliar trail, having a good time.

This year, we hit another glitch, but on a smaller scale.  You can learn more about that here.

Again, I backed up and brought Kathleen in.  Again, it got better after only a few weeks of focused effort.

So today, I went out by myself and rode Bridger.  I fought back butterflies before I got out to the corral.  I talked out loud to myself when he wiggled his head and slewed his ribs the wrong way and acted like there was a mountain lion in the bush.  It worked out pretty well, but I think I have begun a long-term relationship with fear.  For (maybe) the first time, I have a thing, and a family member, that cannot be denied or left behind and that evoke a new kind of fear.  I’m very happy I got myself out there and had a nice little ride today, but there is much more to understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Horse Ain’t Broke

They used to call it breaking a horse.  Many still do.  Breaking his spirit, breaking his independence.  Taking something correct and complete and destroying it.  It’s fitting terminology for what it used to look like (and still does in some circles).

                 I was going to insert a video clip of a horse getting “broke” here but I just can’t do it, so here’s something cute instead:

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My colt Bridger at four months, correct and complete

I broke my arm once.  Just a little, hairline fracture.  It’s healed up now, but it will never be the same.  It can never be unbroken.

The horsemen I follow call it starting a horse.  Starting into a long education.

<Buck Brannaman explains how it’s supposed to be>

We ask the horse to consent to do what we ask.  We give him time and space to consider his options, and in the end, he usually agrees with our suggestions.  It’s a wondrous thing.

But what about when he doesn’t?  In his fifth year, Bridger suddenly started disagreeing.  Suddenly, that is, if one has failed to see the ripples and eddies forming on the surface of the pond.  Bridger has now decided to revolt against those things he doesn’t like.  The sweet, seemingly compliant kid has erupted into a surly teenager.

He’s a horse, surly is the wrong word.  He’s unconfident and worried and irritated and frustrated, by turns or all at once.  Maybe he wasn’t before, or maybe he just wasn’t showing it much.  Now he is.  His modus operandi is to rear up, which can be extremely dangerous.

 

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This is not Bridger and me.  This horse is about to fall over backwards on that person, which could be the end for both of them.  I hope it wasn’t.

So now we have to convince Bridger to quit it.  We have to make him understand that his rearing idea — and his defiance ideas in general — won’t work out for him and he needs to find other ideas.

The plan, implemented by my teacher, Kathleen Sullivan, is to provoke the unwanted response and then show Bridger it’s not in his best interest.  If we pussyfoot around and avoid the tough spot, it will stay in there and solidify.

“If it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”  Carl Jung.

Here’s the thing: correcting a problem can look awfully like breaking something.  Kathleen gets pretty vigorous with Bridger when he thinks about rearing up.  In my work with him, it can be the same.  Dust flies, there is sweat.  First he is quick and powerful and troubled, then, soon, he is docile.

I have to find the difference because I know we are not breaking him and won’t break him and can’t break him.  Right?

Here’s the best I can do so far:

  • Breaking: you reach for my french fries and I punch you in the face.  I have my fries and you resent and fear me.  Someday you may punch me back, if I ever see you again.
  • Correcting: you reach for my french fries and I block your hand; you reach harder and I block harder; I block as fast and hard as I need to in protecting my fries; our hands fly like a Three Stooges routine; you give up trying.  I have my fries and you recognize you won’t get any by grabbing.  Maybe you ask politely and I give you some.  Maybe you order your own.  We’re friends.

Sometimes I use the shorthand term “broke” because horse people understand it.  I tell people Bridger’s “broke to tie” or “green broke.”  I hope beyond hope I haven’t broken anything much.  It’s not the plan.

 

 

 

 

What I Could Get Done Today

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I woke up at 2:30 a.m. in a clammy sweat, wondering if I have what it takes.  I have a young horse, about half-broke, who needs many hours of careful, confident riding to get to a steady state.  Between here and there, he may need to test the limits, maybe bucking with me, or rearing, or bolting.  We’ve done everything to help prevent that, but I’m 52 years old and not much more than a novice rider.  His need to test could be my undoing.

But I can’t leave him as he is; he could be a danger to himself and others.  I need to see this through, but I don’t know if I can.

I’m not alone in this, I have an excellent teacher on board.  She’s sharing the riding job with me and coaching me throughout.  But there’s an interface between the horse and me where only the two of us can go.  That is where we have to forge this relationship, just us.

The stakes are high.  Every day, we are building the house we will live in together from here on out.  It needs to be right.  Every day, there is some risk that I could be hurt, and I have less leeway for that kind of thing than I used to.  If I push myself too hard, I could implode with reactive fear and aversion.  If I don’t push us both hard enough, we could solidify in a half-baked, uneasy mediocrity.

My teacher points out how much I will learn from working through this.  About horsemanship, about my own limits.  She suggests that, when we succeed (as she has no doubt we will), I will enjoy a relationship and a sense of confidence like no other.  Ten years ago, that would have been enough.  Today, in the early hours before dawn, I wonder if I can learn these things anymore.  If I want to.

The mountain is too high to take in the whole.  Today, after we all had breakfast, I took the horse out and worked with him from the ground.  As I walked and stood alongside him, we practiced paying attention even when he was nervous about rustling bushes.  We practiced responding lightly to subtle moves of the reins.  We practiced fancy footwork on challenging terrain.  I put a penny in the jar, saving toward a well-educated horse.  That’s about all I could do today, and about all I had to.

 

I’m a word nerd

I love words.  Take the word “neuter” (I know, that’s weird, but it fits into an essay I’m working on so it’s on my mind).  If you consider the derivation of neuter, you find that

OED

James Murray, primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

between its various Latinate roots and its related cousins in other languages, somewhere in its ancestry it means “neither” — as in, neither gender — and it’s also descended from the word “also” — as in, this gender and that one.

So neuter is neither gender AND both genders.  At the same time.  Come on, that’s just cool.  It’s like a whole poem or mini-essay, sparking the mind to all kinds of possibilities.  In just one word and its family tree.

I’ve always been a word nerd.  When I was bored as a kid, I spent a lot of time with the Almanac of Words at Play, a book of erudite word games for adults, the kind of thing two literary types had on their shelves for their kids to find.

I’m coming out of the nerd closet.  One of the greatest things about passing 50 is I have little left to prove and time to indulge my passions.  Two hours with horses this morning and quality dictionary time in the late afternoon, what could be better?