My Friends…

Gus Gus

I’m so very grateful for my friends. I have friends who randomly boost my self-confidence for no good reason except they think I should have more and they love me. (Sissy, this is automatic for you, but it’s required of family so thanks for holding up your end of the contract…). And in thinking of friends, that gives me a few snapshot moments to share with you.

I was going to write about life balance and when do we sweep up tumbleweeds of pet hair when thinking of tumbleweeds reminded me of the road trip to Vegas, to attend a mutual friend’s wedding. On this voyage, we struggled to keep the Honda Pilot on the road in the mother-of-all high winds. Gretchen was laughing and steering with the wheel actually angled to the left when a tumbleweed whipped across the oncoming freeway lanes, then bounced over the median and wrapped itself like an alien life form into the grill of her car. The tendrils, writhing in the side wind and forward motion of the car made it nothing short of evil—absorbing the car into its hungry form. We knew we would be next. The beast had a lot of stickers, but we managed to pull most of it off at the next gas station. Except she still found traces of it, 6 years later when she sold the car. We were the kind of people who showed up in Vegas, found the nearest book store, and chose to drive through the night to both leave the city early and beat a snow storm on the way home. We were the perfect match to “do” Vegas our way, much as we still “do” life the same way now. Gretchen gave up more of her time than any person should to photograph Sterling and I at dressage shows—our best pictures came from her.

There are too many memories with these friends, and really too many friends, to mention here, but two more are important to note. One was one of those magical nights that took on a Disney quality, in all the right ways. I remember a New Year’s Eve when we found our way to four narrow seats in the Spanish Riding School in the heart of Vienna. Holly and I put the guys on the outside so we could lean close and exult in the performance before us. I couldn’t believe that the horses I had been reading about since Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza (of course illustrated by Wesley Dennis) would be performing before us that night. I know that I, for one, uttered whispered squeals to see them passage into the arena. Earlier, walking the streets, I had imagined Marguerite Henry’s character, Hans Haupt, who had taught his cart horse, Rosy, to piaffe, gaining him the right kind of attention to eventually become a Spanish Riding School student himself. In that New Year’s celebration where, later, a firecracker would bounce off my face in square that I remember being near Votivkirche, we watched unbelievable athleticism and grace in the willing, beautiful horses performing that night. We had already traveled all over in Austria in this whirlwind Christmas Holiday visit making that part of the world and the dancing white stallions forever belonging to our friendship. Gus, today, is the physical embodiment of this magic, the ultimate gift in the period of a year that began so badly. Leading me to…

This one memory stands apart in its perfection with Laura, even though there are uncountable more that deserve mention. It too centered on a New Year’s Eve, not too many years later. The day before, my then-husband said he was leaving. Laura dropped everything she had planned for that holiday evening to arrive at my house and provide me with a bottle of wine, which she usually didn’t drink but knew that I would, and solid company. She sat with me while we watched the surprisingly appropriate movie, “Failure to Launch,” and the person who “just didn’t want to be married anymore” moved his things out of our rented house (chosen for its proximity to his work in a failed attempt to keep us together). We didn’t lift a finger, ourselves, except to refill my glass. Laura brought the right-size bottle. The day and the evening are fuzzy, not from too much wine even though the wine was good, but from too much pain. As a superb equestrian and animal lover, Laura knew exactly what I needed, sitting by me, making me smile, and letting me know I wasn’t alone. We have so many other times full of laughter until we couldn’t breathe and adventure beyond our comfort zones, but that day stands apart as a prime hallmark of our friendship. And she also has a gift for naming, coming up with Gus for the handsome horse Holly gave to me

(And Kimberly who was in town and took my stunned self to dinner, showing me the love of a friendship, begun with horses at the county fair, and spanning 38 years…)

I guess it comes down to horses and friends who see me through the moments when life wrenches itself out of balance or just randomly decide that I am “awesome” and tell me so. As undeserving as it feels, it also feels great! Each is intertwined with each other, the horses and the friends. I’m so lucky to have them all

Excerpt (memoir)

IMG_1608I’m writing bits and pieces of what will become a memoir.  Here’s a snippet from my college days….

 Survival

We arrived at the training site late and I was already falling head over heels for the creek.  The other cadets in my 10-person group didn’t seem to notice the water racing below us, the winter run-off on this chilly June night making its rushing passage a chattering crowd. They hurried to collect branches. The sentinel heights of the Ponderosa pines, their color leeching in the fading light, loomed black over sepia-needled footing—ancient watchers familiar with our game. Although we were learning to build shelters in a deepening dusk, everything seemed familiar, comfortable. Racing against night when our military-issue flashlights would only provide watery micro-spheres of vision, we were directed to gather foliage, prop it into spiny protrusions off of the trees, preferably with a corresponding hollow in the ground, and make our new beds. I don’t know why the deep breaths of piney twilight sparked me to life. I felt at home.

Survival training. A summer military education program for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. This part of the program, out in the woods treated us like pilots who had ejected from aircraft and were trying to make our way back to friendly lines through enemy territory.

Cadets.  I was one that summer, even though I never felt like one.  Looking back across three decades, what I remember most was that USAFA was looking for some sort of ideal prototype (probably a young man, six feet tall, athletic and brilliant) and that I would never measure up. A cadet should have blood that beats Air Force blue and want to act out the poem we had to memorize, “High Flight,” to “…slip the surly bonds of Earth.”  I didn’t find the Earth’s bonds surly.  And slipping them tended to make me airsick.

There were nine-weeks between the spring and fall academic semesters at USAFA and each block of the three-period summer was dedicated to three weeks of training or a three-week period of military leave, a.k.a. vacation. In 1988, between my freshmen and sophomore years, three weeks of survival training were mandatory.

As I slid inside the relic that was my military- issue sleeping bag listening to the forest night sounds and my rustling neighbors, I thought about the challenge ahead of me. I knew these programs were challenges for even that ideal, six-foot tall cadet the Air Force had in mind, so would I be able to do this? In that moment drifting off to the night noises, my fears dissipated, replaced by the unexpected euphoria found in my surroundings. I knew I was an “outdoor” girl—riding my horse no matter the weather and fearlessly walking the grocery store aisles in my dirty riding clothes and muddy boots, my filth more a badge of honor than something shameful. I wasn’t worried about dirt out here. Inexplicably, now I wasn’t worried about anything.

Survival training had portions back at school that involved learning to resist enemy interrogations and study survival tactics, but this next week would be what I considered the real test. After only a few days of teaching us about edible plants, how to signal for help, and camouflaging our appearance, the cadre of instructors would turn us loose to evade enemy captors in the middle of the night.  We would spend four nights and five days moving between “friendly” camps where we would sleep during the day and avoid enemy soldiers who were looking for us while we moved under the cover of darkness. What could go wrong? Never mind that, tonight, we were forced to race against darkness because a cadet from the first group that went last week had been lost for almost two days and whose late recovery meant that my group was launched hours after we should have left for our own week surviving in the woods.

Learning to survive in a high-altitude Colorado forest in the first weeks of June was the equivalent of drawing the short straw in terms of USAFA summer programs.  In the following days, I would eye the American Strawberry plants vining near my feet with envy, picturing their snowy blossoms as tiny bursts of red sweetness. After all, survival training meant we would mostly be living off what was now a prepubescent, spring landscape. Other cadets would tromp over these same pine needles in late July. I envisioned their experience something akin to Maria spinning about the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music, lips stained with berries and full bellies sagging over their belts

(to be continued)

History in the Making

Apocaplyptic Lady Liberty
Photo from Doug Cunningham’s Facebook Page

I’ve been grading student work. In fact, most people who teach on a traditional schedule have been working like crazy to finish up first-semester grades. I’m on terms for my institution, so we simply start over every 10 weeks, and I’m only grading milestone projects. They’re not memorable.

I think most of my teacher friends would agree that the majority of our grading isn’t memorable. Occasionally one person out of 81 students will write something that rings true. A bell chime from a Buddhist monastery. An angel receiving its wings.

One student paper that wouldn’t have been memorable took on significance in a changing context. Nearly more than a decade ago, a talented young man had just beautifully argued that terrorism would become the warfare of the future. As I was marking the A- on the top of his paper, my phone rang. “Turn on the TV.”

Click and I find the first tower billowing smoke. Within a few seconds, a massive object sweeps across the screen and explodes into the second tower. I’ve never forgotten that paper and, much the same as any cognizant American on September 11, 2011, I’ve never forgotten the images searing that moment into my identity. That was history, happening in front of my eyes.

Sometimes we know when history is being made. Sometimes we know events unfolding before us will become lore and eventually the content of student textbooks and the basis for more immemorable grading.

A factor that makes the American 9/11 stand apart from some other historical moments is the ubiquity of the images. With a limited number of channels and a 24-hour news cycle, we saw the same images repeating themselves: images that are iconic today. We all share memories of the same image, even if our contexts were different. I was standing in my living room. Recently, my students described how they were in elementary school classrooms watching TV. But we all know what that second explosion looked like.  And we cannot erase the haunting image of the man falling. We know the dust cloud chasing the people up the street.

As early as 1925, Maurice Halbwachs was writing, in French, about the idea of collective memory and the way that the images we see in the present influence our memory of the past. We find an effect from the group experience of these touchpoints in history, and they shape our memory of how we arrived at this moment.

Only a few years after 9/11, Alison Landsberg wrote a book about “prosthetic memories:” images, broadcast to us, that seem tangible to our minds and yet, in many ways, they are “inauthentic” because we don’t experience the events firsthand.  All of these images are mediated in some way for us. In the case of 9/11, the TV channels decided the angle, the duration, the commentary.

One of my favorite people to work with at the Air Force Academy, Professor Tom Vargish, taught me about contingent reality, that our present-day moment or personal reality is contingent upon the sum of personal experiences that brought us to this point. So many of us have shared experiences because of the nature of our increasingly connected, media-centric world where we personally witness a communal media event, and yet we never have identical experiences. Still, we can speak about this moment, the first day after the winter solstice of 2017, with a collective memory.

We knew history was happening on 9/11. How do we know when history is happening in more subtle ways? So many of my friends have felt the unrest of our present moment. We share the memory of hearing our nation’s leader say he assaults women as a regular practice: (“Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). We witnessed neo-Nazi protests end the life of a peaceful counter protestor in Charlottesville. We share the #metoo movement hanging out of balance with wave after wave of evidence that a systemic culture of assault and oppression exists in our country. Not just assault against women, but assault on most forms of decency. The tax bill moving out of Congress promises to increase the gap between the most wealthy and the most impoverished. Our supposed leaders cower before the threat of retaliation.

All of these “memories” belong to us, collectively, are being mediated for us through multiple sources, and are becoming the fabric of who we are. How do we know when history is being made?

Sometimes I fight this history, spooling out before me into an apocalyptic nightmare that is actually coming into existence, by creating my own memories, mediated through my own, tangible experience.  When I glide through a pine-beetle-devastated forest on too-little snow, sometimes I can set aside my fears about global warming and our future. Sometimes I strengthen the foundation of my contingent reality with crunchy snow steps, bounding dogs, and the tracks of rabbits disappearing into wood piles under the watchful eye of snow-capped mountains.

If only for a moment, I make my own history.

On Buoyancy

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I’ve never thought of snow as buoyant. Nor have I thought about how the word buoyant extends out of buoy and makes me think of plastic floats bobbing on waves. Lifeholds. Hope against drowning.

At 18 degrees farenheit in the sun-dense warmth that is uniquely Colorado, I float within and around diamond-flaked snow.  Strapped to my feet are snowshoes that give me superpowers. I cross scrub-saturated meadows with easy grace, lifted over the tangling growth by the snow.

Of course, I’m thinking about how these devices and a little snow transforms the world around me.

Snow is so forgiving. Molding over bushes and softening the lines of trees; snow blankets the frigid and weary foliage, a solace against the winds and ice. Snow spreads out the weight of my footsteps, holding me above the everyday surroundings.

The weight of the world, especially this world in this moment, also spreads across this snow.  I don’t posthole into the softness in my technical, green shoes. I think about how naturally these things come together and I understand that the snow and the shoes and the world are love.

Shuffling up a mountain trail, the love spreads before me and around me. Squirrels alert others about me. The sun heats my body until I’ve peeled off all but my bottom layer. Suffused in light and warmth, cradled in the mittened winter hands of the world, I admire the example set forth here.

We need to fill in spaces with pillowy soft forgiveness. We need to bring along our own green-shoed acceptance, the only way to embrace and rise on the this love-gift. We need to imbue everything with our love, meeting their love, creating the world’s love.

Then maybe we can make tracks away from the place we’re in.
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