The Importance of being
I just came back from vacation. I went to a rustic log cabin on Sunshine, Deer Isle in Maine’s Penobscot Bay that my Swiss grandparents bought in the early 40s along with fifty acres for $1000. Hastily erected ninety years ago, possibly more, by lumberjacks logging the dense surrounding pine forests, this “hovel” as these structures were called, has one main room with a hearth on one side of the central chimney and a wood stove on the other. Both smoke, although not as badly as in my grandmother’s day. She had to cook, flashlight high in hand, wearing goggles.
Today we have a newer wood stove, (circa 1970?) with tighter seams.Not only that, we have electricity! After twenty five years with no indoor plumbing or lights, my grandmother finally convinced my grandfather to join the twentieth century. Electricity was installed. The ice box was ousted for a refrigerator. The pump on the sink gave way to a faucet. The outhouse, with its scenic woodsy view was replaced with an indoor bathroom, and I’ll never forget the installation of the telephone, which, on rainy days, provided many hours of entertainment eaves dropping on island biddies on the party line swapping rumors and recipes.
A few years ago, a cell tower was installed on nearby Swan’s Island, so it is possible now to get calls on one’s smart phone, but service is temperamental. There’s no internet service or television at The Cabin. It’s a great place for new books, old clothes, long walks, big meals (cooked on the wood stove of course!) and sleeping late.
It had been over four years since I had been on vacation. Yes, I had gone to England for a week last year with my son to check out colleges, but our days were crammed with tours, interviews, and workshops. We did take an afternoon to visit the Warner Brothers' Harry Potter studios (fascinating!). But other than that, the week was full court press. And full court press is my modus operandi.
So being rammed into park, figuratively and literally (we had no car), made me as restive as a racehorse just off the track, which, is, of course, the point of this blog. Horses are creatures of habit. Although instinctually social and nomadic, they acclimate to race track mores and schedules readily. They get used to being cooped up alone in stalls 23/7, let out only for daily workouts, and, if lucky, occasional hand grazing. They understand the competition, the travel, the lifestyle. The longer they race, the more ingrained the demands of the job sink in. Many truly love what they do. Take them off the track and their world falls apart. They get ulcers. They go off their feed. They run the fence when turned out until they drip with sweat. They injure themselves on seemingly nothing. When they are finally ready to be turned out with other horses, all hell can break loose. They fight at first, then play. If they are young, as most are, they play hard, coming in with their sleek coats marred with teeth and hoof marks. Hematomas too. And scrapes and cuts everywhere. Desert Wheat, a seasoned winner of over $750, 000 that got adopted this year, used to force all his herd mates to race him, wreaking havoc in a field and terrorizing the younger horses who had retired at a much younger age than he. We finally cured his “Terminator" behavior by putting him in a field with a mare that using a full blown battery of double barreled kicks, whipped him into shape “right quick like,” as we say in Kentucky.
Racehorses need time to learn to be just horses again. That’s why the ideal scenario is not to take them directly off the track and immediately reschool them for new careers, but to give them let down time, ideally eight or nine months. But once a horse’s career is over most owners want it out of sight, out of mind, and off the payroll. That’s why a let down farm is on my strategic long term plan for the MMSC.
The first week in Maine I was like a newly retired racehorse, the epitome of antsy, unsettled by the lack of demands, appointments and communication.
I repeatedly walked to a promontory overlooking the beach to check for cell service, messages, and if lucky, emails. I returned the voice messages that I did get as I could. I laid fires and cooked on the wood stove. In the morning, I swept the pine needles from the floor and shook the rag rugs outside. I dead headed the nasturtiums and watered the flower boxes. I kept the wood boxes full. I emptied the tinder box from the stove. At low tide, I fed the gulls leftover bread. I picked wildflowers and arranged them in jars. I dealt with insomnia by reading into the night. The first few days, I walked down the road to my mother’s house where she lives year round, to get online. She had installed DSL a week before our arrival. I got to use the internet once, then the DSL blitzed out completely. Three days later, the land line in the Cabin stopped ringing, its ringer simply giving up the ghost. The dial tone disappeared intermittently as well. Was the Universe trying to tell me something?
I thought a lot about the horses at the Center and what their let down must feel like to them, both mentally and physically. Within 72 hours of a slower pace, my old injuries made themselves known-my damaged joints, the old soft tissue tears, the stiffness and arthritis. These things take a back seat to my busy brain when I am at the Center. Eliminate the daily grind, though, and they surge to the fore!
No wonder some horses, while seemingly sound enough when they arrive at the Center, fall apart physically when they first get into our program. Take, for example, MMSC summer arrival Taylor Said, winner of several hundred thousand dollars in eleven races, with an athletic body and a competitive mind. I thought with groceries and spa treatments, he would find a new home as an eventer in record time. But no sooner had we gotten him adjusted, then one pesky issue after another popped up. Pretty soon, like a house of cards, he was fully laid up, and his training was set back six weeks. The same was true for Jay Z (Jazz Fest), Reggie (Regiment), Link (Kalinka), and Maine (Maine Avenue). Older horses, like Forgmaggio, Bordeaux Bandit, and Nowheretohide had, in addition to their physical wear and tear, deeply engrained habits—bolting, star gazing, trying to flip the bit under their tongues, and of course, no right lead. Really young ones like Harlan (Colonel Harlan) had baby brained track terror flash backs. We had to start from scratch with him.
All these setbacks tend to ruffle me. After all, I am hounded by the “ka-ching” effect of daily expenditures on every horse, most of which will never be recouped with their adoption donations. That’s why horses with more scope, like Wordsworth, have higher adoption fees. The have to pay their own way, as well as the ways of many others that simply can’t.
The second week of my stay in Maine, various members of my family—siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews arrived. I was busy again, but this time it was a relaxed busy, a vortex of dinners, laughter, hugs, and fireside chats. By now I had spent time wandering around the forest, climbing rocks, hanging out on the pebbly beach. Like the horses, I had accumulated my fair share of scratches, bruises and bug bites (right.) I went on an overnight kayak camping trip with my sister and her two children (left). When night fell, we paddled out into the bay to star gaze and to create milky ways of photo-luminescent plankton with our paddles and hands in the inky cold waters. I was utterly and fully present and savored the phenomenon of just BEING. A day later, I returned to Kentucky, calmer, wiser, ready to continue the MMSC crusade.
On my vacation I was reminded that learning to give up schedules, habits, and jobs if you are a horse or a human takes time. And it takes the time it takes. Cabin Time. Kayak Time. Horse Time. Honor that. For with horses, as with people, it is only when we learn how to BE that we can truly BECOME.
By the way, the DSL reinstated itself at my Mom’s house at 9 PM on our last night. And the dial tone came back that night at the Cabin, too. Coincidence? Or God acting anonymously?