The Undoing of Arrogance

arrogance-trim

Arrogance, colored pencil, 2011.

I drew this colored pencil painting after 9/11, but I think it still speaks to a fundamental problem in our society and in the world, as evidenced by the struggle of the Water Protectors at DAPL and the Black Lives Matter movement, and by this horrendous polarizing election. The first world, bloated with smug, narcissistic arrogance and patriarchal contempt, rides atop the the third world, who crawls on her knees and still wears the chain of slavery, while the great and greedy towers of civilization are attacked and fall. Meanwhile, the vegetative power of Mother Earth and her ally, the primal serpent of the Ancient Goddess, rise up from the verdant ground, empowering the downtrodden to survive, endure, shake off their burdens, and stand strong, not just for their rights but for Mother Earth herself that she may stand strong and shake off those forces that would rip open her belly, spill her blood, and poison her life-giving waters.

Excerpts from “Embodiment 2: What horses can teach us,” a chapter from a manuscript in progress

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.

Sir Winston Churchill

As a girl, I found that when I was around horses, my sense of body shame transformed because I didn’t feel divided between my mind and body. I felt fully embodied. Horses didn’t care that my hips were growing or that my eyes were strange. They didn’t care about surface appearance. What mattered to them had to do with your core. Could you be trusted? Were you consistent? Were you gentle and kind? Did your actions match your intentions?[1] I knew intuitively that being around horses was the salve I needed because in their presence I felt completely attuned to the instinctual and animal nature of my body. No body shame could exist in the powerful unity of that state of being because there was no mind-body split into which to lodge. Thank goodness my parents allowed and encouraged me to have that transformative connection with horses.

Of course they said no to my pleas to have a horse in the backyard. But every June they sent me off to summer camp in the rolling hills of Maryland. There I learned to shoot rifles and arrows, swim and canoe, make my bed with military corners, craft lanyards out of gimp, and most importantly to ride and care for horses. Waredaca (an acronym for Washington Recreational Day Camp) was run by the Butts family who owned a few hundred acres of fields and woods with fifty to sixty horses. Together with my best friend Shorty, we were entrusted to train a couple three year colts so that they would be safe for any inexperienced rider. Short on actual information and skill, Shorty and I shot from the hip, trusting our instincts and limited experience on more seasoned horses. I find it amazing, looking back on it now, that we both survived intact, and so did our charges, Sundance and Little Cuss, two palominos who taught us through their bodies to stay firmly rooted in ours.

Since those early horse-crazy days, I have tried my best to have horses in my life, or at least to have neighbors who have horses. Although that love affair started in the East, moving West made it much more possible to be in close proximity with horses, sometimes, happily, right in my backyard, as they were in Oregon. I like to think, and it has been mostly true, that I am a better person around horses, more connected to myself, more conscious of my surroundings, more mindful of the simple fact that we humans are not the only sentient beings here on this glorious planet, and that compared to the natural grace of horses, we have a lot to learn.

The only time that I felt disconnected from horses was the result of a sad incident that I write about later in the chapter titled “Over-riding intuition.” Suffice it to say here that my participation in this incident upset me so much that I thought myself unworthy of having horses in my life. I raffled off all my horse sculptures, and carved the rider off of a perfectly good wooden horse sculpture. I felt I had sinned against my totemic animal—the horse—and only hoped that after my time of doing penance was over, I would be forgiven by the Horse Gods and Goddesses and granted the honor and responsibility of caring for a horse of my own.

Imagine my gratitude (and trepidation) when, in January of 2011, a dear friend gave me a three-year-old bay filly with three white feet and kite-shaped star on her forehead, an Arab/Morgan cross named Esperanza. Barbra had more horses than she could care for. A seasoned horsewoman, mother of six, and former mine laborer, she rescued horses, pit bulls and cats, but because she lived in the prairie of the San Luis Valley with no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, she kind of needed rescuing herself. She had seen me around her horses, and approved of how I treated them, plus I was making a habit of going to visit her ramshackle assortment of trailers and crude pens to help out in any way I could. Barbra had had a rough life, and although she said she was happy and content living with her animals, anyone having to haul water in winters where forty below is not uncommon is, in my book, still having a rough life.

For about a year I worked with Esperanza from the ground, teaching her to lead, stand tied, lift up her feet, back up, lunge in circles around me, and plow rein as I drove her from behind. She was smart and wanted to connect and learn as long as I went slowly and didn’t pressure her too much. I may have been around horses off and on my whole life, but this was the first horse I have had the privilege to gentle and train “from scratch.” Given my recent history, I sure as hell didn’t want to screw it up.

We’ve had a couple rough patches. One time I pastured her at a friend’s in Northern New Mexico. I was practicing saddling Esperanza with my old Aussie Western saddle and all seemed fine until she felt the metal stirrups thumping against her ribs. She bolted and I lost control of the lead rope. She ran and ran around the low fenced corral in a panic. With Henry and Sandy watching, I must have felt that I needed to appear in charge, because when I managed to catch Esperanza, instead of taking the saddle off and calming her down, I tightened the cinch. Wrong move. She bolted away from me again and finally, wild-eyed, leapt the low fence and tore off into the field to be with Sandy’s horses. The saddle slipped upside down and it took a few days to find the stirrup leathers. It could have been a major wreck. When I caught Esperanza, she was slick with sweat and heaving. With Henry’s and Sandy’s help, we got the saddle off of her and I walked her back to the corral where all seemed well. But for a long time after that, Esperanza hated being saddled. And I got a lesson in the danger of allowing peer pressure to influence my work with Esperanza. I’m not saying Henry or Sandy pressured me; I did it to myself. I wanted to show off for them, plain and simple.

Esperanza and I had another rough patch when in 2013 Henry and I moved to Dolores, Colorado to help my cousin run a horse ranch focused on natural horsemanship. Although the horse whisperer my cousin employed, Ramon Castro, is the real deal in my opinion, and helped me immensely with getting Esperanza used to all the unexpected, chaotic, and irritating things that come along with humans and being ridden—flapping stirrup leathers, ponchos, bumbling mounts and dismounts, for example—I found the competitive atmosphere of natural horsemanship clinics counterproductive to furthering my connection with Esperanza. Pressure, agendas and ego-driven competition are not helpful when working with an anxious and young horse, and I was guilty of all of that.

Ironically, Esperanza and I got along much better as soon as we both moved off the ranch. I had lost a great deal of confidence—I had fallen off her and quickly learned that when you’re in your sixties, the ground is much harder than it used to be and you don’t bounce as well. Plus, Esperanza developed a mysterious abscess near her udder, so riding was out. Once we realized that the veterinarians really didn’t know what to do about her abscess, I began to rely on alternative therapies, my intuition and Esperanza’s direction to heal her. I would research different poultices and salves, and, when I allowed her to smell the medicine, she would either walk away from me, clearly saying No, or she would encourage me by actively pointing at her belly with her nose, and lifting her hind leg to make it easier for me to treat her. A clear Yes.

Slowly as she healed and as we learned that we could make our wishes known to each other, our relationship—all from the ground—improved to the point where I began to throw a saddle blanket on, and then gradually the saddle (minus the stirrup leathers), and then so on until we worked through her PTSD. I learned, with the help of a few key horse people I happened to meet, to take the pressure off as soon as Esperanza even began to do what I hoped she would. This was her reward: to take the pressure off. I spent a lot of time with her out in the field with no agenda at all. My touch got lighter. My patience grew. I listened more closely to my intuition. I listened more closely to Esperanza. And to my amazement, she responded by becoming calmer, steadier, and more willing to make and keep our connection.

 

Now it is 2016 and Esperanza is eight. Despite our troubles and setbacks (or perhaps because we worked through them), we have managed to develop a mutually beneficial relationship: Esperanza gets to learn good social skills so she can serve me as a steady mount and companion as I age, while I get to experience the world through the senses and wisdom of a fully embodied creature. She is naturally grounded and centered, two Aikido principles I discuss in depth in future chapters. Every inch of her is alive and responsive with natural ki as she extends her field of awareness in every direction around her. When I climb up on her bareback, she is alive and alert to every shift of my balance, every movement of my hands and legs. What her eyes cannot see, her swiveling ears hear and sensitive nostrils smell. Even in the darkest night, her kinesthetic intelligence gives her all the information she needs to know where she is and what’s happening around her. Many horse people say that a horse’s embodied intelligence is so developed that they can sense more subtle energies of thought and intention. No wonder. Horses are prey animals; their very survival depends on their ability to sense and respond to the dangerous presence of a predator and to read their intentions before it’s too late.

Unlike me and most humans I know, Esperanza has never doubted the wisdom of her body; it doesn’t occur to her to separate thinking from everything else her body does. She does not suffer from the angst-filled ramifications of a mind-body split or its ugly stepchild: body shame. To the contrary: if I willing to listen to her, her embodiment is contagious in the best possible way. In her presence, my breathing slows and deepens. On the ground my balance becomes steadier, as if I too have four legs. Astride her, my balance becomes more dynamic and undulating, attentive to each small shift and change. Watching her vigilant ears swiveling around to catch each sound, my own hearing becomes more acute. When she jerks her head up and gazes intently in the distance, I’m alerted to that truck in the distance I had not yet spotted. When she suddenly shies or crouches down as if to run, I’m cued to extend my senses so as to better harvest the world’s mysterious bounty of information so obvious to her. I try to take what I am learning from her everywhere I go.

Of course I am not always successful. Some of the places I go are places Esperanza would detest and attempt to flee from as soon as possible. Airports and airplanes, for example. High-rise buildings. Parking lots. Classrooms with windows that don’t open. The vice-grip of a mammogram machine. The gridlock of a city. For some insane and unearthly reason, we have constructed a world of human activity that segregates us from the natural world, and from our bodies. If I look at these places the way Esperanza would, it is obvious why they are detestable. Like her, I flee as soon as possible for the green and quiet and open.

 

Horses are surprisingly astute when it comes to picking up the mind-body split and the difference between having the idea of something and the physically embodied intention of it. You can think Whoa all you want, but unless that’s accompanied by clear physical cues, even if they’re very subtle, a horse will not react.

One of my most influential Aikido teachers, Robert Nadeau, spoke constantly of the difference between the concept of an idea and the EXPERIENCE of that idea. A cerebral understanding of an idea without the bass chord/root of the body’s experience results too often in an ethereal, airy, space cadet, head-in-the-clouds kind of quality rather than a solid, grounded, vital dynamism. He spoke of embodiment as the physically manifest expression of a state of being. To practice embodiment is to bring the idea of developing an inner life home.

Horses know the difference between someone who is living in their head and someone who is living in their body. They know who is spaced out and who is solid. From a horse’s point of view, this distinction is rooted in nothing less than survival. Horses are herd animals; they are tuned into each other so that anything that threatens an individual will be instantly communicated to all members of the herd. But questions of survival depend on reliable communication. A horse that’s willing to stand guard while its herd mates lie down for a nap in the sun is playing a valuable role and must embody the herd’s trust. In contrast, a horse that’s not paying attention cannot be relied upon for accurate communication, and indeed, may soon become a dead horse.

When it comes to horse-human interaction, the same dynamics rule the day. I have seen Esperanza physically move away from someone who was scattered, unfocused, agitated, and not in his body, even though he insisted at the time that he was fine. Something about the intensity of the man’s mind/body split and the incongruence of walk versus talk must have spelled danger for her. In contrast, just the other day I saw her tolerate the wild fluctuations of an over active child as he climbed the fence, ran back and forth, and poked his hand through the corral; I can only guess that she wasn’t alarmed because there was something congruent in the child’s energy.

The sensitivity horses display toward mixed messages and the level of embodiment in humans may help explain the growing field of equine facilitated therapy, in which disembodied humans practice being with embodied horses in order to reawaken to the life spring of our body-based wisdom. This sensitivity may be even truer if the horse has suffered abuse and learned to mistrust humans and their ability to honestly walk their talk. Linda Kohanov writes about this dynamic in her books about equine facilitated therapy when she notes that some formerly abused horses are especially great teachers because they will be only respond to people who learn to become congruent in mind and body, even if that congruency is one of terror, or, in the case of the over active child, frenetic energy. Maybe Esperanza trusted that child not because she particularly likes wild and sudden movements, but because the child wasn’t trying to mask anything or cover up his crazy impulses with a thick layer of socially acceptable behavior. Perhaps horses prefer authenticity.

[1] As Linda Kohanov has written in her important book, The Tao of Equus, the fact that horses are prey animals that run in herds means they are especially attuned to noticing and assessing intention; their survival depends upon not only being able to discern what a predator is up to but also to instantly react to the collective response of the herd.

Lucky’s Last Flight

You could see in his eyes the wild gallops of his past,

his lush mane streaming and his glorious tail wind-whipped in his wake.

Eight years in the wilds of Utah, a stallion, maybe with his own band,

maybe running in the bachelor herd, a life on the move—

grazing, finding water, rutting and running on stony ground.

 

But then his flight was thwarted. Capture, castration and servitude.

Scars on his dark russet hide, scars on his heart, a wariness filming his eyes.

I imagine a brutal breaking to the will of man, and then years of packing

their stuff deep into the mountains, trussed and hobbled.

 

Luckily, Lucky’s luck changed. A slight and tender woman and her daughter

decided they needed a mustang to round out their hearts, gentle to their hands,

rub and admire and fuss over, sing their love songs to, bandage and woo back

from sickness, and to leap upon in wild flights through the field, Lucky’s short legs

pumping through the long grasses, his long back cradling them both.

 

I missed all that and only know of it through Carol’s tales. By the time I met Lucky

he was an old man, sway backed and dull-coated, losing his teeth and graying.

But I saw how lucky Lucky was to come into another sweet time in his life,

to feel Carol’s gentle hands on his neck as together they faced the sunset.

 

I rode him only once, ever so briefly, during a wounded time

when I needed a steady old horse to help staunch my leaking confidence.

I knew him better later, from the ground, mixing his warm mash of senior feed,

watching him slurp and gum it with gusto, scratching the itchy places

along the dip of his spine, guiding him from corral to field and back again.

 

And my mare knew him, Esperanza the young and sassy, bossing Old Man Lucky

around, herding him in front of her with her ears laid back, and biting his butt

if he didn’t move fast enough. Carol said he needed another horse to tell him what for.

He didn’t mind that she was bitchy to him. He was smitten, and they were inseparable.

 

Esperanza has taken time every day this week to stand in the sandy spot by the fence

where Lucky last laid down, where he tried to rise but couldn’t lift himself further

than sitting on his haunches like a dog. That’s how I found him last Tuesday morning

bringing his breakfast. No telling how long he’d been down and how long he’d been

trying to rise. His breathing was already slow and ragged, his back legs played out.

 

Our favorite vet shot the euthanasia drug into Lucky’s vein, two shots it took

for Lucky to breathe out his last, and for his big head to finally slump down

on Carol’s lap and for his great heart to cease, her hands smoothing his graying hide

as she cooed her last love song and his spirit flew up from the husk of his body.

 

We cushioned his head and blanketed his body against the summer flies. All day Carol

kept vigil, even snuggling under the horse blanket as if napping with him, and then

Esperanza joined them, standing over them both, shooing the flies with her tail, lipping

the blanket and pushing it aside to snuffle Lucky’s fading scent as she waited for him to rise.

 

Esperanza is neighing into the sky, a full throated and plaintive bugling. I wonder if she

still sees Lucky’s last flight the way I did, hoisted into the air with a neighbor’s front end

loader, chains wrapped around his front and back legs, hanging upside down against a cobalt sky,

head thrown back, mane and tail flying in a strange swaying gallop. I wonder if she will

recognize the hollow in the field where we buried his body deep in the sandy earth. I wonder

if she realizes that we’ve saved enough room her to lie down next to him when her time comes.

Old musings upon the Muse

When a sculpture is going well, I feel as if I am in a dialogue with the emerging form, with each tool used, and with the material itself. My hands and eyes are listening, responding, exploring, coaxing. Sometimes what comes out is a complete surprise to me, as if a combination of my unconscious, the life of the material and the spirit of the form are being reflected back to me.

When a sculpture is not going well, I have ample opportunity to observe my impatience and insistence to push or hurry the process. Oftentimes this is when something breaks. In that clear moment of destruction there can be incredible insight and the chance to see/feel what the form/material is really all about…

I owe much of my training and inspiration to several teachers: David Park, my uncle, a Bay Area painter whom I never met, but feel akin to nevertheless. I grew up surrounded by his large, moody figurative paintings. He died when I was nine, but lives on through his work and lately a modest fame and recognition. Perhaps as part of this legacy, when my own talent emerged, my family strongly encouraged and supported me.

Edith Truesdell, my great aunt, a painter of landscapes and figures, and David Park’s mentor. She painted well into her nineties with excitement and devotion.

Judith Simmons, a potter and sculptor who with gentle hands and voice showed me how to feel the life of clay, the miracle of transforming fire, art as a private act of listening/feeling inside.

Gordon Newell, my uncle-in-law, a sculptor of wood, stone, clay, bronze, plaster, good friend to David Park back during the WPA days. Upon seeing my ceramic sculpture when I was eighteen, he catalyzed my own desire to move myself along the path of an artist. His Sculpture Center in Monterey became my home and workplace in 1971. Gordon introduced me to carving, to the beauty of the California desert, and to the fellowship of artists. My affiliation with Gordon, who at eighty-something is still robustly carving stone, continues to this day…

excerpts from my artist’s statement, Deer Run Art Show 1990

The Oxygen of Love

Not just the words, but the compass they offer…

That’s what I want, what I need. The ability

to  keep balanced as humans wobble the earth

on her axis, insanity inflames, and demagogues

spin their lies  in a thick and sticky web, ensnaring

true vision, feeding on ignorance and fear, offering

easy answers all tied up in a pretty bow.

 

The drumhead tautens, threatens to tear

while the drummer sets a rhythm too fast,

too tight to hold, and the beat dizzies, erratic,

out of control. How do we stop feeding the madness,

prune the shallow roots and suckers that seek out

sustenance where there’s none to be found—

that can’t be sustained—

that can never really satisfy.

 

How do we sink down our taproots beyond

the hard and rocky layers, the ones

that seem hopeless and impenetrable,

the ones that make us face our loneliness

and longing, the ones that actually require work,

until we break through the deep into fecundity,

the moistunderworld of la tierra sagrada.

 

Only there can the taproot marry the rich earth,

entwine and intermingle, inter-depend,

each feeding the other. Only then can

the trees of our bodies spiral upward,

our arms extend into the heavens,

beautiful, balanced, belonging. Only then

can we breathe in the madness, transform

the poison within the universe of our cells,

breathe out the oxygen of love.

Getting Out of the Corner

Image

It made no sense to back him in a corner. I could see him stiffen and flare his eyes as he went on the defensive. How she could not have seen it too is beyond me. But no, she pushed him even harder. Any trust and sense of belonging he’d had up to that point was on the run like a spooked horse that shits on the fly to lighten its load.

Yes, he was exactly like that. A spooked horse, possibly one that’s been mishandled, dominated, forced. Horses generally don’t want to kick or bite; sure, they’ll knock each other around in the herd some, but basically they’re grass-eaters, peaceful, more prey than predator. They’re not looking for a fight. But they’ll become predators if you push them hard enough, if you force your hand, and they’ve got nowhere to run. Any creature would. It’s a matter of dignity.

If you continue to pressure and push a cornered, scared horse that has already shown it’s willing to bite or kick to defend itself, then in my book, you get what you deserve. The solution? You have to back off, give the horse some space, remind it that it’s not cornered. In fact, encourage it to move off away from you, a much safer and more peaceful option than flying hooves or lunging teeth with ears pinned back. Only then can you begin traveling the long slow road to re-establish trust and make a connection.

Same with this student. Tattooed, atti-tooed, jailed, paroled, trying his best to not fuck up again. A young man who could swing either way, and it wouldn’t take much. He’d already passed one test towards his GED, something he thought he didn’t have the smarts for, something that surprised all of us, but him most of all. He didn’t know he had it in him to pass a really hard test, to succeed at anything, to actually possess the capability to not continue down the wrong road. He was starting to open up. To dream. Little dreams, at first. Then medium sized dreams. Maybe even big dreams.

But then he’s shamed and pushed around. She does it in front of the rest of the class. To his credit, he doesn’t blow a gasket and come out swinging. He pushes it down for later. Smart move, but it costs him.

I want to defend him, stick up for him, protect the trust and connection we’re building as teacher/student. I want to make her wrong for interfering. I want to find out exactly what’s wrong with her so I can explain it to her in great detail and make her back down.

But that road doesn’t feel right either. Maybe she’s feeling the same way he is. Pushed into a corner. Pressured enough to let the snarl get a hold of her. Scared. Isolated. In survival mode. And oblivious to the contra-indications.

I have to back off from both of them. Launder my agenda and hang it out to purify in the sunlight. Reconnect my own self so that I’m calm, consistent, patient. Only then can I give them space to remember they’re okay. They can move their feet. They’re not cornered. Just like with a nervous horse, I need to release the pressure as soon as I feel just the smallest try.

Asking the Right Question

Let’s call her Alice, a chunky woman (chunky by her own definition) who sometimes comes into class with makeup I wouldn’t begin to know how to apply—thick penciled eyebrows, heavy eyeliner, multiple shades of eye shadow, mascara that makes her eyelashes look like caterpillar fur. Other times she just looks like the worn out single mom that she is, doing good just to get up and get her kid off to school, living with the reality of being an ex-offender on probation, and eating a big slice of humble pie by coming to the Center for Adult Learning to study for her high school equivalency. On her diagnostic entrance test, she scored only about 9th grade level in reading and writing skills, but we both have theories about that. As her teacher, my theory is what I call the rust factor: being out of school for a while can set up perfect conditions to rust the machinery of the brain, and it simply takes time to wear it away. I joke that I’ve got a can of WD-40 in my backpack just in case. Alice’s theory is that her reading and writing skills have atrophied because of texting on her cell phone. I think we’re both right.

I’m very interested in why adult basic education students couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t make it through public school, and I’m working on another theory: public school doesn’t cater to kinesthetic learners, those students who can’t quite absorb information or gain understanding if they can’t experience it tactilely in their bodies. Since public school is overwhelmingly geared towards visual and audial learners, kinesthetic learners get left by the wayside. A big factor is controllability. Visual and audial learners are much more likely to be content sitting still; meanwhile, kinesthetic learners are so frustrated that they’re acting like they’ve got ants in their pants, and not surprisingly get targeted as troublemakers or daydreamers who are not able to focus their over-active attention. Maybe public schools have caught on to this fact and achieved a better balance of teaching to different learning styles, but until they do, our little learning center will be packed with disgruntled, shamed, over-active, stymied, and self-doubting kinesthetic learners.

Alice is a self-doubter; we stumbled upon this discovery because I noticed that when I gave her a second chance to answer those questions that she missed on any given test, she did quite well, and she would say “Shoot, that’s the answer I put down first, but I didn’t think it could be right, so I changed it.” I hear that a lot. Students’ first instincts are often right, but they don’t trust them. So I asked her, “Do you doubt yourself often?”

“All the time.”

“When did you first learn to doubt yourself?”

She looked at me with her beautifully flecked amber eyes and when I saw them tear up, I knew I had stumbled on the right question, because the answer was right there, crowning, ready to be born. I suggested that she write a narrative beginning with the phrase “I first learned to doubt myself when…” She nodded, took paper and pen, bent her head and began to write.

The next time she came to class, she had typed her narrative into four pages that detailed how she had been sexually molested by her uncle when she was a tween. When she told her mother about it, her mother had believed her, but her father, an intimidating drunk, had not, and neither had anyone else in her family. In fact they were so angry that she would make such an accusation, they shamed her. I’m not sure what the mother’s response was; Alice was vague on that point. But her paper was very clear on the anguish of realizing that maybe she had gotten it wrong. Maybe she had misunderstood what had happened between her uncle and her. Maybe her perceptions weren’t right. Maybe she couldn’t trust herself. Maybe it would be safer to hang back in self-doubt.

I suspect that that’s how Alice became a bad girl, failing high school, seduced by the wrong road, and eventually landing in jail. Now she is sitting across the table from me, amber eyes open and sparkling with tears as she gladly hands me the brutal facts of her life because I happen to be the first teacher so far to ask the right question.