Day 18: The Day I Freed the Horses

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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I have to begin this story by telling you that I am eating one of the best breakfast wraps of my life.  A deli in Upper Montclair has gluten-free wraps, and so my painful hiatus away from savory, cheesy, Jersey-worthy breakfast combinations can finally come to a close.  The other reason it’s so delicious is because I’m in a pretty good mood today.  At several times in my life, I’ve found that after a long stretch of bad luck or extreme battles with anxiety, I emerge into a period of great gratitude and peace.  It’s like that feeling when you are so exhausted but can’t sleep for days, and then you finally take an amazing unexpected nap and wake up with a new lease on life.  Because of this, my chorizo, egg white, spinach, and cheese wrap is one of my favorite meals so far this month.

The fall weather this morning, and this general feeling of serenity, reminds me of a very odd time during my teenage years when my family’s struggles from my childhood began to truly set in.  We had only been living in Vernon for a few years, and the threatening presence of our past life in Plainfield still left a trail of destruction in our daily lives.  But I was finally getting to an age where I was mature enough to realize how close we came to never moving at all, and how lucky I was to be standing in the beautiful countryside of Sussex county–safe, with friends, with a clear head.  Unfortunately, gratitude for making it through a different experience is often not enough to erase the physical and psychological aftermath that inevitably follows.  And in a way, during high school, I knew that a storm was not far off, that at some point soon I would have to begin working through the stress it caused all of us.

Luckily, the universe (or whatever you want to call it) often puts us in situations to remind us of the beauty in the world when we need it most.  I feel torn when I say things like this, because I don’t necessarily believe that a higher being is puppeteering us around, teaching us lessons.  But I do believe in something greater than ourselves, as well as the unforeseen power of cause and effect, and because of this, I found myself standing on a farm, freeing horses into a field on that fateful fall day.

My mother, sister, and I had ridden horses since we were little.  An expensive sport, it never played a huge role in our lives, but we were pretty good at finding the more rough-and-tumble stables in town to avoid the snootiness of the competition world.  During early high school, I began volunteering with a local barn in exchange for lessons–simply because I enjoyed being around horses and the woman who ran the place.  Her name was also Virginia, a rare find.  Unlike me, she was just over 70 and carrying saddles around with stronger arms than I could ever dream of for myself.  She was one of those women that equally terrified and inspired me, and being in her presences was oddly freeing.  I knew she would never sugar coat her opinions of me–if I was being mediocre in any way (one of my biggest fears as a teen), I could trust she would tell me.  Still, my lack of consistent education in the horse world didn’t put me at the top of her list of helpers, it took too much time and explanation.  So when she asked for any help, I was thrilled and flattered.

At the peak of my teenage discomfort, and when theatre opportunities began battling with my falling grades, I lacked a distraction to avoid thinking about how different my childhood had been from that of my peers.  Even my closest friends had pictures with one another from first grade, from Girl Scouts, from swim practice.  I had lost touch with everyone from Plainfield, a wall had been built between these two worlds.  I stayed silent when people shared cheerful stories about fun Halloweens, riding a bike for the first time down their street, or their ten-year friendships that began in Kindergarten.

As much as I could have fallen into a pit of self-pity, I started to recognize that this set me apart from a life of expectations that many of my new friends had grown up with.  I started to cherish my solitude, my rare experiences, my outlook on a beautiful day that some may have not developed by 14.   I began to wear my fear and my family’s stretch of bad luck as a badge of honor.  Whether this was truly healthy is another story, but at the time, this was my defense.  It allowed me to breathe more deeply, to say yes to offers to escape from the mundane, to believe that each normal day was a day without bad news–and therefore a blessing.  This outlook did not make me a positive, platitude-spewing, social butterfly. If anything,  I felt more distanced from people in my tower of self-proclaimed maturity.

But there were still days when my tower felt threatened, when my mood would shift without notice–something I wouldn’t recognize as a common side effect of trauma until many years later.  One moment I was okay, the next I was not.  That afternoon, I was pushing through the best I could.  I assisted Virginia in the usual tasks after my lesson–lugging saddles, shoveling out stalls, untacking horses.  And then she asked me–since the usual girl was out sick–to let the horses out for the night.  I froze in disbelief for a moment.

“I’ve never done that before, do you think it’s a good idea by myself?” I asked.

“You’ll be fine. Feed them first, and then open the stalls one by one, starting with the front, and then get out of the way.”  She began to walk toward her house on the other side of the farm.  “Oh, and watch them head down the trail, it’s beautiful during sunset.”  These rare glimpses of sentimentality in this old horse trainer were gifts to a young girl eager to please a difficult teacher.

Let me explain the horse situation a bit.  This farm, perched on the border of New York and New Jersey, owned hundred of acres of forest and fields behind the main barn.  A long, fenced-in trail disappeared in the distance, capped off by a horizon of forests.  Each evening, Virginia would feed and brush each horse, and then let them gallop into the evening to spend the whole night in the woods, playing and wandering.  I once asked how she got them to come back in.  “Breakfast,” she had snorted.

Virginia departed without a second thought and left poor, terrified little me, standing before the stalls of 10 horses, all chomping away at their dinner.  As soon as they finished–you knew by the sounds of their pounding hoofs agains their stall doors–I was ready for my cue.  I took a breath, got ready to run, and unhooked each door with brisk succession.  Unlatch, back up, unlatch, back up. I alternated sides to keep myself from getting trampled by the joyful but powerful creatures.

When I reached the end of the line of stalls, I ran behind the last horse for a moment in hopes to catch them disappearing in the distance.  As they galloped, they did all the things horse are taught not to do in the ring: buck and leap, knock into each other, neigh and holler.  Virginia had mentioned that some needed shoo-ing at times, but not this evening.  They sprinted into the cool fall air and vanished as they blended with the trees in the distance.  It’s like they knew something I didn’t–a joyful freedom after the mundane confinement of their days.  Instead of mourning their loss of sunny hours, they celebrated the night.

On breathtaking days like today, when the trees are all finally beginning to change, I find the world too beautiful to mourn the passing of the summer.  And though it would take many years to emerge out from under the weight of my childhood years, that afternoon, I witnessed the possibility of joy after a time without freedom, of the energy that we bottle up to stay within the confines of our life’s expectations.  I knew the time would come when I would also run toward the woods on the horizon, hollering and galloping, I just needed to learn how to leave the stall.  I’m not sure I can confidently say that has happened yet, but I’m working on it.

Virginia passed away several years later, and I highly recommend reading her obit here.  She was a remarkable woman.  Not only did she teach me that direct honesty was at times, a loving way to guide a young student, but also that beautiful moments and responsibilities could be trusted to someone who didn’t trust herself.  I will never forget her for this gift.

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