When I was very young, my family took an annual vacation. There was never a destination, no Disneyland at the end. We travelled by car, leaving at dawn, my mother riding shotgun with the big road atlas spread open next to her on the bench seat of the Rambler, the Buick, whichever hand-me-down car my father was driving. We drove through places whose names had mythical echoes: The Black Hills, The Smoky Mountains, The Dells. Along the way we stopped at burial mounds and battlefields, my mother gripping carefully copied notes, reading aloud, reminding us of how history and geology informed not only our route, but the land itself and all its inhabitants.
My mother carefully planned these excursions months in advance. She scoured the library, brought home piles of books, and filled her evenings poring over them and taking notes. The talk at dinner was of the effects of glaciation or wind erosion on the landscapes we would traverse — the Loess hills and the Kettle Moraine country. She talked of the footprint of early inhabitants, the cost of “opening the West” to white settlers in covered wagons (my mother’s ancestors), the cost of skirmish and conquest. We learned how each successive wave of human habitation changed the landscape, how the tide of Western expansion made prey of everything: people, prairie, forest, and most of all the animals. My ears pricked at talk of animals: which wild creatures lived where we were headed? Buffalo on the prairie, Black Bears in the mountains, the Pileated Woodpecker in the Ozarks?
There were always birds. My mother loved them. She was a sucker for a gaudy red Cardinal, spied at the backyard feeder in winter, its dense red coat, black mask and peaked feathered cap flashing against the snow. Crossing Iowa, we made a game of counting Redwing Blackbirds, with their glossy black feathers and distinctive red and yellow shoulder markings, clinging to cattails in the ditches along the roadside. She helped me identify the soft, restive cooing of a mourning dove — following the purring sound, we found her nesting in dense ivy on the windowsill of an uninhabited room in my grandfather’s house. My mother instilled in me a lifelong interest in knowing where things come from, and why.
I woke that first morning in Katikati to birds more riotous than the ones in my own trees at home. I padded to the dark kitchen and made tea by the glow of the kettle switch. My hosts were already up and out, feeding the horses, mucking out. We had a busy day ahead so it was agreed that I would write my daily words while my friends ushered in the day on their farm.
First up, before the rest of all that we had planned, I was to ride Ari. He is a fine-looking, big Dutch warmblood, with solid legs, a shapely arched neck, well-muscled shoulders and a powerful hind end. An advanced dressage horse, Ari has been ridden to Prix St George, just one step below the highest level of training. His movement is fluid and sensuous, his paces springy and elastic. I’ve never ridden a horse like Ari — it is a rare privilege, and in Ari’s case it is also something of a miracle.
Ari suffered greatly in the hands of an ambitious professional rider, who ignored his sensitivities and pushed him until he snapped. Carrying a rider is not easy. Training and performing the higher level movements — the pirouettes, the collected canter, the lateral movements are every bit as difficult for a horse as the routines of an Olympic gymnast. An advanced dressage horse is a high-performance athlete and relies on their rider to manage their training to create the strength, suppleness and fitness required for their work. It’s not uncommon for a rider to overface their horse. The rider’s ambition and the horse’s raw talent are a seductive combination. The rider pushes too far, too fast; anxiety, exhaustion and even pain are overlooked and soon the horse is overcooked, stuck in their sympathetic nervous response: fight, flight or freeze. Unable to say “slow down” or “stop” they lash out. Ari wasn’t overcooked, he was fried, and when he hit the wall he began to rear and shy and bolt with his rider. He became so dangerous that his owner gave up in disgust and sold him on. As a schoolmaster.
Ari has a ponderous nature and large, glossy eyes that miss nothing. Standing beside him, I feel so small, keenly aware of all that this gentle giant is capable of. Surprisingly, I am not afraid.
Ari is curious about me. Standing at liberty in the wide breezeway of the stable block, he is free to investigate the new human. He sniffs the backs of my hands, gently turning them over to snuffle my palms. Perhaps he is looking for treats, but he doesn’t seem disappointed when he finds my hands empty. Of course, his sense of smell is acute. I’ve been holding my riding gloves, which smell of leather and my own horse. Ari continues sniffing down my torso and makes a dive with his teeth for the zipper pull. Debbie has warned me that he likes to play with zippers, so I step back to his shoulder and reach up to give his withers a scratch.
A schoolmaster is a horse, generally older, who is approaching retirement. He has been trained up the levels as far as his age, fitness and conformation allows. As his competitive career winds down, he will often be offered to an up-and-coming rider, in order for the rider to learn the higher level movements. When Debbie bought Ari, something entirely different occurred: Ari was so mentally broken by the intensity and pressure of his original training, that he was nearly unrideable. He was anxious and, like Bucephalus, afraid of his own shadow.
Debbie leads Ari out to her arena and climbs into the saddle. Holding only a light rope tied loosely around his neck, she walks and trots to give him a stretch and warm up his muscles and joints. Ari pops into a steady rhythm in every gait, his trot like a metronome, neck lightly arched, stomach lifted and with just a hint of his potential — the power of his forward energy — as he relaxes into his “work.”
There are times when a ridden horse is clearly working: When the rider pushes them in and out of their paces, challenging the horse to move in ways that are obviously strenuous. Often you can see the concentration on a horse’s face; just as often you can see signs of stress: a swishing tail, pinned ears, narrowed eyes. This morning, with Debbie lightly astride, barely cueing him, riding with her intention rather than the gross cues of leg and rein, Ari looks like he’s out enjoying a morning constitutional, as if he doesn’t even have a rider on his back. His ears are soft and forward, attuned to birdsong and the breeze moving in the trees alongside the arena. And the flick of a backwards ear that tells me his attention is also on his rider.
When Debbie stops and says it’s my turn, I climb into the saddle with all the confidence of a young girl. Not a hint of fear, just a blank slate beginning to fill in with desire for connection. I’m clumsy, of course, because it’s a new saddle and he’s a very big horse. I try holding the reins at the buckle to “stay off his face” but I can’t steer. My undisciplined legs are bouncing on his flanks and Ari starts to wander. I have no steering. Debbie calls out a few words of encouragement, a few instructions and suddenly I’m away. We’re wobbly, but we start to move in shapes that resemble the familiar patterns, the circles and arcs which are easy and pleasant for a horse.
His walk is huge, and I feel my seat bones rising and moving with every stride. Debbie reminds me to breathe, and when I do, there is that delicious melting of rider into horse, where the movement becomes one. This comes and goes, it’s fleeting, but if I were my former self, I would be far too afraid to relax into his rhythm. The ride is short, there’s a bit more walk, a little trot and Debbie teaches me something really important about how I hold my hands (too rigidly) and suddenly Ari lifts beneath me and the forward momentum unsticks and we are truly away.
When I cue the halt it is with a long exhale. I sit for a moment, without thought, just breath, and then it happens. A swelling of energy floods up through my body and fills the cavity of my chest. I am aware that this originated in Ari and that he is releasing something, letting something go. Tears spring into my eyes; I think Debbie and I are talking, but I’m also inside the moment with Ari. Afterwards, it feels like he’s given me a very precious gift, this horse with a history of such trauma, still willing to connect.
The First Family’s young “rescue” dog bites a secret service agent and the dogs are sent home to Maryland. Now the internet is ablaze with voices, most of them barking, why don’t they just hire a trainer?
As if a dog is a simple machine, a robot, and the right set of coding will magically erase all fear and anxiety, all unacceptable behaviour. If this were even remotely true, most of us would opt for robots instead of pets. The world would be awash with trainers who could wield their coding expertise to produce absolutely predictable behaviour in the new domestic cyberpet.
My point is this: a young German shepherd dog is not an automaton. And, if, like the Biden’s young dog, he was plucked from a shelter and has a history of trauma or neglect or even simple dislocation at a young age, he is going to react to pressure from his environment. Most likely, he will react in unpredictable and possibly undesirable ways. He has little capacity for self-regulation; he is simply trying to survive the best he can in an uncertain world.
I can’t even imagine my own behaviour, were I to suddenly find myself living in the intense pressure cooker of The White House. Surely I would be swearing like a sailor and acting out in the hot-headed way I do when I feel overwhelmed and out of my depth. The best thing the Biden’s could have done for their young dog, is to remove him to the family home, a known and predictable environment where he will feel safe. What happens next for Major will likely involve a trainer. I hope it’s a compassionate one, a trainer who understands the nuances of interspecies communication and uses positive reinforcement as a primary tool.
I have an uncomfortable relationship with the term “trainer.” Sure, there are many professional trainers in the world. Some would say that anyone who keeps animals is, at some level, a trainer. In order to live side by side with humans, animals must become accustomed to human contact, learn to to behave in certain ways, respond to specific commands. A well-trained pet is generally happy and settled in the human environment in which it is kept. We train in order to mould an animal’s behaviour to suit our requirements.
I live with dogs, and I train them, if lightly. My dogs are a working breed, highly energetic and always on the lookout for a job. If I don’t provide them with enough stimulation, they will go make their own fun which isn’t always to my liking. They will chase bicycles and motorbikes along the front boundary, barking. Or lay in wait for the birds that roost inside our big equipment shed. As birds fly in and out at dawn and dusk the dogs will chase them, and bark and bark and bark. It’s distracting, but if I really minded the sound of dogs barking, I wouldn’t have them. What I do have is elderly neighbours who are perpetually miffed that I bought the block of land next door, and very offended at the joyful noise we generate as we go about our daily activities. So, I take the dogs for long walks down the river to burn off steam and I train them to “heel” and stay with me as I work around the farm. I don’t have sheep they can herd, so I encourage them to seek out and give chase to bunnies instead. They’re not hunters; there’s little chance they could catch a rabbit, but the activity is useful on two counts. The dogs have a job that they love (one that requires lots of bounding around and sniffing things out — the stuff that dogs are good at). And, by doing their job, they discourage the rabbits from burrowing in the paddocks and creating safety hazards for the horses.
I can think of myself as a trainer when it comes to the dogs. I have difficulty assuming the mantle when it comes to the horses that live on my farm. Dogs and horses are profoundly different. Obviously so, in size. But more importantly, dogs, like humans, are predators while horses are prey animals, hard wired to flee at the first sign of danger. They are not domesticated in the same sense as dogs and as herd animals they thrive in the company of their own kind. I won’t be having a horse sleep at the foot of the bed any time soon, more’s the pity for this inveterate horse mad girl.
Horses communicate with each other through posture and subtle movements of their bodies. A mare might pin back her ears and poke her nose at a pesky youngster; that’s an obvious language sign to back off. Woe be to the youngster who doesn’t take heed. The next sign might be a bite on the rump. But horses regularly give and receive far more subtle signals. A yawn, a flick of the ear, a slight turn of the head and neck away from another horse — all signals among the herd that help to keep the peace or establish the space a horse requires within it.
Horses don’t only communicate to other horses with their language signs. They also have a complex set of signals which help them self-soothe, easing tension and anxiety. Rubbing the muzzle on a front leg is a way of discharging the mental and physical tension that builds for a horse during a training session. Dropping and rolling or shaking the head, neck and back act as a reset for the autonomic nervous system. When we say to someone who is upset or anxious, “shake it off” we may mean it metaphorically. The horse does this literally, a good shake releases tension and helps return the horse to his para-sympathetic system, the “rest and digest”end of the autonomic nervous spectrum.
Being subject to predation, horses are guided by primal instincts, the most common that of survival. When faced with the possibility of a threat, horses react quickly. Knowing how to be safe around horses is fundamental to keeping them. Reading their language signs and calming signals is as important as being aware of the environment and any potential triggering dangers. And yet, astoundingly, the vast majority of people who keep horses have little understanding of their language signs. We know this primarily because people, even trained professionals, don’t always see the subtle signs that indicate that a horse is in pain.
Imagine this: you are a prey animal. You live in a herd. You are at once a sentry on the lookout for danger and also a passive supporter, helping to keep the peace. If you stumble and strain a tendon, or get a rock imbedded in your hoof, your tendency is to carry on, masking the pain so as not to disclose your vulnerability. A lame horse attracts predators. Obvious lameness threatens the herd. It follows that if horses mask pain at all cost, it is even harder for their human caretakers to recognise the signs when they are compromised. When a horse pulls up lame, that’s a ten out of ten on the pain scale. They have a near-infinite capacity for self-regulation. They are simply trying to survive the best they can in an uncertain world.
I would say that horses train me more than I train them. Once I began studying the language signs and calming signals of horses, I began to notice how much my own horses were trying to communicate with me using the same signs they use with each other. And the more I observe, the more aware I am of how loud and brassy my own attempts to communicate can be.
I’ve accepted the challenge to quiet down. I practice mindfulness as I go about my chores and interactions with the horses. I observe them carefully, without fixing them with “coyote eyes.” I attempt to give them the time and space they need to process, to offer an answer, to relax. I try to enter into a conversation in a language they can understand. I can’t flick my ear, swish my tail or use my teeth to massage their wither soothingly, but I can regulate my emotions and ground myself with breathing when I am with them. I can take on board the things I am asking or demanding of them just by being in their space, and step back when they so quietly and politely ask.
I’ve come to understand that living with humans is inherently stressful for horses. No matter how deep their knowledge of us, their trust in the environment we provide for them, we will always be the cat amongst the pigeons. And because I love my horses, I desire change. My goal is to cause my horses as little stress as possible: to enable them to feel good in their bodies, provide them space to move and the company of others, feed them appropriately (not too much and not too little, with variety and regularity, not chopping and changing on a whim). For my riding horse, I endeavour to provide exercise that helps him relax and become more supple — as, just like us, horses become stiff with age and lack of exercise — but I never drill him. I like to regularly try new things (novelty is key for curiosity, which is what makes the brain ready for learning), but I’m careful not to over-face either him or me. Fear and anxiety are closely linked and kill the “try” every time. I listen to his language signs and vow to be happy to just do nothing on those days when — for whatever reason — he really doesn’t want to participate.
I go to the paddock with the halter slung over my shoulder. I ground my feet on the earth and breathe deep into my belly. I check out where the horses are, and make my way to them walking purposefully but in a relaxed fashion, tracing arcs rather than bee-lining straight at them. If you watch horses in herds, they often move in arcs in and amongst each other and as a group. This indirect approach has a variety of benefits. Horses see best when you approach them side on, as the monocular aspect of their vision (one eye on either side of the head) creates a blind spot directly in front of them. The arc will deposit me a few feet off his right shoulder and signal my intent to have a conversation. Depending on the calming signals he offers, I may step closer to his shoulder, or I may step back by his flank and rest a hand on his croup, the point of his back near the base of his spine. When there, I am out of his space yet with him. I’e learned through trial and error that it is easier for him if I am further from his head when we start to converse. Outside of his bubble. Standing quietly, I exhale. I might see him exhale, too, or rest a back leg by cocking his hoof forward and dropping a hip. I’ll mirror this movement dropping my hip and softening my knees. He exhales again and I realise we are breathing in time with one another. There is a little electric joy that comes in the recognition that we are resting together peacefully. Sometimes this is when another horse will approach, and these days, Chico will usually stiffen a little, drop his ears back slightly and swing his muzzle at the intruder, telling them quietly but firmly to please go away. Usually they amble off. We take a few more restful breaths together and then I step to his shoulder, exhale again and do the magical thing called “asking for his eye.” This request has everything to do with intent. I must not drill into him with my predator eyes, or allow impatience to quicken my heart rate or my movements. I simply think something that loosely translates as “do you want to come do stuff with me?”as I glance softly at his eye. My little horse is coming to understand that there are a variety of ways he can answer that question. If he accepts, I’ll know because it will look like absolutely nothing more than a slight turn or inclination towards me: I will see his eye more clearly, he’ll look at me. I’ll place the lead rope which is connected to the halter over his wither at the base of his neck, and quietly open the circular nose piece and hold it, just so, and Chico will lower his head slightly as I slip the halter on.*
I may not always get what I want in the short term. Doing things with my horse in this way takes time and he doesn’t always want to participate, but in the long term I get a partner who has a voice and I get the peace of mind of knowing I am not coercing him. He lives behind my fences and relies on me for sustenance. In all other ways, I am endeavouring to give him agency.
Nonetheless, horses have to survive in a human world. They need to stand behind fences without getting tangled in them, be transported without becoming claustrophobic. They need to accept medical attention when its required, and be able to walk safely and quietly beside a human who is leading the way. For this, some training is absolutely required. It can (and should) be kind and take into account how the horse learns, of which we know so much through advances in behavioural and neuroscience.
And although we have had huge breakthroughs in understanding, we also have a tradition of kind and horse-centred training that spans more than 2000 years. Xenophon wrote of training the horse with kindness, and underscored the importance of understanding its nature and needs, in The Art of Horsemanship written around 355bc:
“If you want to have a horse learn to perform their duty,” he wrote, “your best plan will be to show the horse kindness whenever the horse does as you wish … a horse will more readily take the bit, if something good happens each time that the horse accepts it. Also, the horse will leap ditches and spring up embankments and perform all other feats required, if every time the horse performs the command, the horse is rewarded with kindness.”
Latter day Australian horseman, Tom Roberts, wrote in his 1998 book on The Young Horse: “If you are fond of a horse and wish to do him a real favour, train him well. Teach him good manners, good habits, both in the stable and under saddle. You need never worry about the future of such a horse if for any reason you have to part with him. You assure him of friends wherever he goes. Perhaps the greatest kindness you can do any horse is to educate him well.”
I would posit that this goes for humans, too. If you want a horse to be a companion in all endeavours, listen. Quiet your own voice, and hone your observational skills. Learn his language, a language of gesture. His brain is not like yours, he not only relies on super-sensitive senses, but he processes sensory information differently that humans do. Often, he just needs a little time when asked for something. Give it to him and then take a leap. Check your expectations at the door.
Get curious about the possibility of conversation.
Nota bene: I am indebted to Anna Blake of The Relaxed and Forward Barn for introducing me to the language of horses (calming signals) and to techniques such as mindful haltering described here. The changes in both me and my horse are profound.
Very pleased to announce the release of my first book!
A memoir of my American childhood and adolescence set in the turbulent 1960s and 70s, down they forgot traces the story of finding my way in a family overshadowed by mental illness. Social and political discontent—assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, drugs and dropping out—inform this haunting story about personal identity and the consequences of loneliness, despite the passionate and fleeting friendships of youth.
“Letteri casts a wide net over her youth and wrests from that ocean of memory such gleaming treasures. The whole of youth is captured to perfection in these essays, the intimate and the political, the terrible and the joyous. In the end down they forgot does what the best memoirs must; it reveals Letteri’s lost world while beckoning readers to recall their own.” —Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
The print edition is available through major online retailers — Book Depository, Barnes and Noble and Amazon and by special order at your favourite independent bookseller. Also available as an ebook for Kindle (Amazon), Apple Books or Smashwords. Published by Lilith House Press.
ISBN 978-1-7335387-4-3 (print edition) or 978-1-7355387-5-0 (ebook)
One night in January 1968, I’m lying on the floor reading the comics, when I catch a fragment of David Brinkley reporting from Washington: “The ten thousandth US airplane has been brought down over Vietnam.” By February, I’m watching anxiously along with my family, as the North Vietnamese launch the Tet offensive, and the State Department announces the highest casualty toll yet. In a single week, 543 Americans are killed in action and 2,547 are wounded. President Johnson announces he won’t run for re-election.
Politics spark lots of discussion at our dinner table. Richard Nixon has declared his candidacy, and in March Bobby Kennedy finally decides to enter the race. Bobby, it seems, is the perfect choice. My parents say he’ll be able to bring together Black Americans and labor, the blue-collar whites. My brother, already a political junkie, finds an old “tricky Dick” button from the 1964 Kennedy–Nixon campaign: a picture of Nixon with the words, “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?” But Dickie has a favorite new button, and he wears it every day: “If I Were 21, I’d Vote for Bobby.”
In April, the violence hits home: Martin Luther King is shot dead in Memphis. Dickie is standing in line at Osco Drugs, waiting to pay for a couple of records, when the announcement comes over the radio. Some guy standing in line in front of him, a white man, says, “Bout time somebody got that n—.” Dickie runs home red-faced and furious, angry with himself for not saying anything, for not standing up to that man. “The thing is,” he says, his eyes blurring with tears, “most people who work there are Black. Some of them must’ve heard.”
The night it happens, Bobby Kennedy appears on the news. He’s on the campaign trail, speaking to a packed house, mostly Black people, at a union rally in Indianapolis. In the clip we can hear the agonized cries of the crowd as Bobby breaks the devastating news.The full text of Bobby’s speech is reprinted in the morning paper; my mother reads it to us at the breakfast table. Her voice breaks at the point where Bobby had quoted, right off the top of his head, from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forgive falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
May 8th. Four days before my tenth birthday. Dickie’s got the money, but he’s too embarrassed to buy the Summer Blonde himself, so he gets me to walk over to Osco with him. Just inside the automatic doors, we stop to dig around in the record bins. Dickie grabs a copy of “Susan” by a Chicago band called The Buckinghams. “There’s a cool song on the B-side,” he says. We head down the hair care aisle and hang around looking at shampoo until there’s no one else in sight and then we move down to the hair dye section. Dickie scans the rows of ash blondes, brunettes, and redheads until he finds the shade he wants. He says he likes the ads on TV, all those blonde kids having fun at the beach. “That one,” he whispers, pointing to a box with a picture of a pretty young girl in a bikini on it. He slips me the money and goes to wait outside while I take the Summer Blonde up to the register and pay for it with my brother’s five-dollar bill.
Back at home, I go out in the yard and help my mother weed the flowerbeds, creating a diversion while Dickie disappears into the bathroom with the box of dye. He’s up there for a long time, and then he shuts himself in his room. “Just reading,” he calls out.
At dinnertime, Dickie strolls into the dining room as if nothing’s new. He’s got a bright, yellow-white shock of hair spilling over his forehead; he’s only dyed a streak at the front. He looks a bit like a skunk. My mother is furious, but I start giggling uncontrollably. Dickie shoots me a crooked Elvis smile.
down they forgot: a memoir will be released• on March 11th, 2021. It is already available for pre-purchase through several outlets including Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. Fingers crossed it’ll be coming soon to Book Depository and your favourite independent bookseller (but only if you ask).
The farmer across the road begins to shift a mob of sheep over the hills at 5:45am. Perhaps he’s taking advantage of the dawn’s cooler temperature to get the day’s hottest work done, but I can hear the commotion and my own dogs are restless. They wake me with their wining and pacing and I lie still, eyes closed, and picture the scene: the hills, still green, are steeply pitched and rugged, tattooed with narrow veins of scree. The heading dogs appear in front of the mob, long and low — silent and predatory — pinning the flock with their keen eyes. The big huntaways, the noisy rabble, are joyfully bounding left and right at the rear, moving the sheep forward towards a gate, flushing out strays and barking, barking. I can’t hear a quad bike, so I know the farmer is on his horse. I etch their silhouette, man and horse breaching the top of the bare hill, into the back of my eyelids, sigh and roll out of bed to let the dogs out. 6:10 on the kitchen clock.
It’s a rare “day off” for me and I’d been planning to sleep in until 7. No matter. The day unspools with chores and a run to the beach with the dogs in the hottest hours of the afternoon.
I’ve been thinking about knowledge, and about what we shed and what we take with us as we pass through life.
I don’t hold any special wisdom. I know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about a couple of obscure subjects. I know the layout of a typecase and how to lock up a chase, readying it for print. I once thought I would have a small outbuilding on my farm, housing an antique cast-iron letterpress. Trays of lead type with charming and mysterious names: Baskerville, Goudy, Gill Sans. Expended Egyptian. I would make beautiful hand-stitched books and broadsheets for my writer friends. I can feel the weight of the hand lever in my hands. My shoulders remember the torque, the quiet feel of the press meeting the type, imprinting a fine layer of ink onto linen paper. I carry the aromas of ink and solvent and the strong orange soap necessary for cleaning stray residue from my patient hands. Like the rider atop the hill, these images are etched on the inside of my eyelids as I lay in the cool light of morning, but they also reside in my muscle memory, in my heart and in my mind.
If we’re lucky, we find people in our lives who “get” us. Who don’t just know us well, but who perceive the things we hide and don’t often share, who recognise something closer to the truth about ourselves than we dare utter. Between us, there are fine threads of connection; we tug on the threads and urge each other on. Last week, I lost someone who “got” me.
I used to think that when someone I loved died, some colour would bleed out of the world and leave me paler, poorer. This isn’t how it works. When someone I love dies, the world grows larger, more vivid. In my grief, colour shocks me until I begin to see my friend in everything. I see my friend in the William Morris fabric of my bedroom curtains, in the spiced apple cake the neighbour brings me. In the eyes of my beloved horses.
We hadn’t known each other long, and we’d never met in person. There was no time to fill in all the stories that make us who we are. Elaine would’ve understood my love of letterpress printing, like I admired her devotion to vintage fabrics and ephemera. When Elaine told me she loved my writing, I believed her because I knew she didn’t have time for nonsense and niceties. I love her writing, too. And I have a river of her words that I will carry with me now that she is gone.
“We just stood therein stunned silence. We couldn’t believe it. The heart was perfect.” *
Before there was Secretariat, there was the 60s.
I pressed my awkward girl body to the speaker,
To the unholy events that marked us.
10,000 planes shot down and my mother’s bare lips
Pressed together in grief.
The world shed that decade as I shed my girl skin,
Took refuge in a dusty barn where Jose and Luis
Carried water and photos of their babies
In Mexico. Talk of the big chestnut
On everyone’s lips.
We worked hard that day and left early,
The one and only time we ever did.
Raced home to watch the big chestnut
Moving like a tremendous machine, 31 lengths ahead,
Jockey looking over his shoulder in disbelief.
Jose and Luis in the tack room with a transistor
Seeing as a blind man sees baseball, vivid,
The big chestnut a fiery comet of sinew, muscle, and bone.
Us in the living room, stunned and breathless.
That huge engine powering us all home.
* Dr Thomas Swerczek, head Pathologist at the University of Kentucky, while performing a necropsy onSecretariat.
NB: It’s hard to format poetry on WordPress, (OK, hard for me anyway). And it really doesn’t display well on a phone. So, if you want to see what this poem should look like, please view it on a computer or iPad.
Many years ago, driving along the 280 freeway south of San Francisco, commuting to a job I had long stopped caring about and trying to let dark thoughts settle into the kind of numb that helps with accepting the things you cannot change, I saw a dog running scared along the concrete barrier at the heart of the freeway. Four lanes of traffic separated her from the scrappy, litter-strewn bank and the tenement houses below. There was no way I could stop; traffic was heavy on all four southbound lanes and it was moving fast. As I passed, I realised it was no dog. It was a coyote, desperately thin with heavy teats. She was running the barrier, pressed hard up against it with only inches between her visible ribs and the vehicles thundering past.
Her whole story burst into my imagination. Somewhere there were pups. On that bare undeveloped hill, perhaps, or in a dry culvert. She was hungry and so were they. She was taking the fastest route to the dumpster behind the burger joint or the taqueria. How she would dart across the traffic and drop unseen into the neighbourhood was a thought I couldn’t stand to think, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking it. It played like a loop in my mind for weeks.
Months later, I quit the job. The vision of the coyote wouldn’t leave me. It hung around and relentlessly gnawed at the edges of my conscience. I tried to write about it and couldn’t. At work, one of the creatives, a director, had asked to see my writing, which I had probably talked about a bit too much. He was trying to be kind, but I felt like he’d ripped back the curtain and everyone could see the sham: I had nothing much to show him. Fragments. A few poems.
23 years later, to the month, on a blustery and unseasonably cold day in Aotearoa, I am commuting from the suburban home I share with my husband to the little farm where I spend most of my days. As I come around a long curve on the new expressway, I see a mother duck with three tiny newborn ducklings in tow. They are waddling up the middle of the highway, hard up against a concrete barrier that rises between the north and southbound lanes. The barrier runs for nearly half a kilometre as the new road spans a huge interchange, flying over a major local road and a river. Déjà vu.
I still have nothing much to show. One manuscript, another in a drawer. Several false starts. A few essays and one or two rants. A few more poems. Once again, I can’t stop for the mother duck, knowing full well that if I do, I’ll cause panic in the ranks and they will run into the oncoming traffic. They are wild and I am not of their world. I am a predator. I feel desperately sad and it hangs like a yoke around my shoulders for the rest of the day.
The manuscript, which has taken me fifteen years to set free, is with the book designer. I’ve had input into the cover, discussed the look and feel of the pages. My publisher is organising the ISBN and, later, the Library of Congress submission. I am terrified and thrilled in equal measure.
Here at the farm, we are having the most prolific season of ducks. Perhaps the dogs have run off the pukekos and stoats which predate on ducklings, or perhaps we have an exception on our hands. One mother duck started early, parading a string of eleven ducklings while the wild spring rains pelted the paddocks. One duckling vanished in the early weeks, but here we are on the doorstep of summer and this mother is still parading her ten offspring. Only now it’s difficult to tell which one is Mother. The ten ducklings have grown into fully fledged ducks.
It’s a truly exceptional feat in a plague year, and I secretly wonder if that halcyon moment that lockdown provided—the quieted world, the absence of machine noise, all the jostle and thrust of human endeavour truanting—has given our mother duck the edge.