Friday, November 19, 2010

U Turn

The death of my horse, Maxx, had a profound impact on my life. Coupled with the knowledge I had recently gained that I would probably never be able to have children, I found myself lost...unable to identify who I was or even what I liked to do. I had no dreams or ambitions, how could I? Horseback riding was the one thing I could say, with confidence, I was really good at. Now that was gone and I felt 'marked', unlucky, and I couldn't bear to take the chance that I would have to go through another devastating loss like I had with Maxx. There would be no more horses for me.

Several years later, divorced, remarried and with many more heart breaks under my belt, I had my second BIG life changing event. This one was not nearly as depressing, and was, in fact, one of those moments of enlightenment people write about. I took a trip to Death Valley in 2007.

But this was not ordinary was a Green Tortoise Adventure. At the time, I had been married to my second husband who had full custody of his 10 year old son for about 5 years. We were married only 6 months after meeting, partly because I felt that I was getting the best of both worlds...a husband and a son...the child I could never have, and party because of my severely damaged self-esteem. But first a little background. Shortly after New Years 2005, my husband decided he couldn't 'do it anymore'. We had never argued much so I was very confused. He left me that day with no real explanation. Five months later he moved back...and I let him. Obviously my self-esteem was still shot and I continued to walk on egg-shells in my own house. After all, he couldn't give me a reason why he left in the first place so I was afraid that anything I did might make him leave again.

I had recently joined a Book Club group and met a fantastic couple who introduced me to The Green Tortoise ( Now, this is an adventure group and I have always been up for a good adventure. In the past, during my single days, I had no probelm signing up for a rafting trip, baseball games, football games, or a trip to Emerald Bay to learn how to kayak while camping out in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. So, when I saw how inexpensive the Green Tortoise trips were I was game to try one. My husband didn't want to join me and encouraged me to go by myself...funny, he was always trying to get me to just go away without him. I found a short trip that would only mean taking 2 days off from work since it went through a weekend. It was an October trip to Death Valley.

The Green Tortoise trips are these amazing jaunts to all kinds of places...Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Burning Man, etc. They run these bus trips that pretty much include all of your food and transportation to the various locations they offer. You can sign up as a single or get some friends together...but the buses accommodate up to 30 people and you most likely won't know any of them. My trip to Death Valley was to start at the bus terminal in San Fransisco on a Friday night at about 730pm. My husband was just generous enough to drop me off in Vallejo to catch the ferry...he didn't get out to say good bye because he had an appointment to get tattooed and traffic was bad. Priorities. I didn't realize that I would be walking about 3 miles from the ferry building to the bus terminal with a 70 pound back pack (I had a few bottles of wine I was lugging around...priorities). I was pretty much exhausted when I made it to the meeting point. At least I thought it was the meeting point...there were several scruffy figures sitting in the alley and I began to wonder if this was a good idea...a 'single' lady travelling to Death Valley with people I didn't know, on a bus I'd never been on, with a company I didn't know anything about...this could be the start of a great adventure or a bad horror movie. Either way, I was about to find out...

A few other people started to gather...a shaggy looking kid with a guitar, a tall teen aged boy, a group of 4 English people (oh, one of them was very cute), another older guy with a guitar, a pretty blonde with a thick Swiss accent saying good bye to what I presumed was her host family. Eventually the tortoise pulled up and we all received instruction and loaded up our gear. The bus would be our sleeping quarters for the night...we'd stop in Stockton and convert the seating areas into a big sleeping platform, brush our teeth at the truck stop and when we awoke the next morning we'd be in Tecopa Hot Springs. Once on board we began to form a brother-sisterhood. Where out on the street we had been strangers, afraid to say hi, we now had a reason to get to know each other. We would be on that bus or in a tent, sleeping side by side, preparing meals together, and keeping track of each other with the buddy system for the next 4 days. It was time to bust out the wine and cards.

Even with the wine I found that I was still pretty much a loaner...just observing the others, wishing I was more outgoing and able to form friendships quickly. Instead, I felt that I was intruding on the others while THEY formed friendships and got to know each other. The 2 guys and 2 girls from England quickly befriended the Scottish guy. The two guitars players bonded and the 'teens' were hanging out together. I got to know Nadine, the Swiss girl, as best I could, since there was a slight language barrier. Once she found out I was 36 I was deemed "grandma"...great, I was the old lady, but I guess getting a nickname is a sign that you are liked (as long as that nickname isn't bitch or dickhead). I was starting to get along with everyone...this was fantastic.

After a few hours at the hot springs accompanied by a nice breakfast made by the entire group, we headed into the park to our camping spot. The weather was beautifully warm and the scenery stunning...who knew the desert could look so amazing. I set up my little pup tent, which ended up as a storage unit since we all decided to steal the cushions off of the bus and set up one giant sleeping pad. We slept 2 nights under the stars with nothing between us and the elements but our sleeping bags and anticipations of the next day. It was absolutely glorious.

Our second morning we went to the salt flats at Badwater Basin and later to the Golden Canyon and Red Cathedral for a hike. I tried to be inconspicuous and follow the group of Brits who were hiking together. I still hadn't "bonded" with anyone and was just sort of tagging along. At some point, after a few bends in the trail and stopping for pictures I got separated from the group. Not a big deal considering there was only one way in and one way out of the canyon. They must have taken one of the little side trails that would eventually lead back to the main trail. I decided I would continue on the 'end' so I could see the view that got the place named the Red Cathedral in the first place.

Soon after I came across Steve (the cute guy) from England...he was returning from the spot I was headed. I guess he decided not to go with the group too. He said it was just up ahead and worth seeing. And it was breath taking. I snapped a few pictures and started to head back to the bus. I found Steve had waited for me. We chatted the whole way back. I had made a friend...we were bonding.

We talked about anything and everything under the sun. I was fascinated by the European perspective on Americans and travel. He had just come from a 3 month safari in Africa and would be headed to Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan after he left the states...but first he would be going to LA, Las Vegas, New Orleans and New York City. He wasn't wealthy but spent his money differently then 'we' do...about half of the people on the trip were foreigners and they all had one thing in common, traveling and seeing the world, experiencing life rather then owning things, was more important to them than most of the Americans I know.

This opened the door to talking about our personal lives...what we did for work and fun, relationships, family, etc. He had been divorced for several years and sold his house affording him the ability to travel for a full year without working. He was searching for happiness in the form of a companion. I talked about my marriage and 'son'. He asked about my dreams and goals...I was at a loss. I had no idea...I felt that I was a happy person, but the more we talked the more evident it became that I wasn't living my life...I was on autopilot and not really living at all. I felt panicked and hopeless.

We spent just about every moment together after this hike. We cooked and cleaned together at the camp. We sat by the fire together, making smores and singing (rather poorly) along with our two on-board guitar players. We hiked to the bottom of the Ubehebe Craters and the top of the Star Wars sand dune to watch the sunset and hiked through Mosaic Canyon sitting for hours in the shade of the cliffs not even needing to speak. We slept side by side (in our own sleeping bags) each night, staring at the billions of stars above that seem to only exist in the middle of the desert. We talked and laughed and shared our fears and eventually I found my dreams. And my dreams did not include my husband and the trepidation I felt every second I was in my house. I wanted MY life back.

The next couple of days were wonderful. Steve and I were having a blast. I was more outgoing, getting to know the other people on the bus...sharing email and facebook information so we could all stay in touch. I still get updates from several people I met on that trip...Andy, one of the guitar players from Canada, spent the following year traveling through South America figuring he'd learn the language by exposure. Anna, from the London area, was just recently surfing in Lisbon, Portugal.... and the other Steve (from Scotland) posted pictures of his apartment in's got a great view. And my Steve recently returned to Bath from another long trip to Taiwan where he had been scuba diving.

Saying goodbye in San Francisco was very hard. Steve went to the Ferry Building with me and waited. Quite a few tears were shed. Upon arriving in Vallejo it became painfully obvious that my marriage was over. My husband wasn't going to be picking me up...he was busy with things more important then picking up his wife who had been gone for 4 days. I called a co-worker's friend to see if she could pick me up and drive me the 45 minutes hour and a half trip for her. She did what my husband was unwilling to do...and I had only met her once.

This trip not only solidified my desire to vacate my marriage for good, but it set me on a healthier that has lead me to get to know myself better. I reconnected with friends and started doing things I vaguely remembered enjoying in the past. I moved into my own apartment and starting taking care of me. More often then not it was difficult and lonely. But I knew that if I just gave myself a chance to sit in that loneliness that it would evolve into something else...contentment, peace and yes, even happiness. It wasn't easy and, at times, it was downright uncomfortable. I adopted a cat, Avi, to keep me grounded. Without him I would have probably spent little or no time at 'home'. I would have kept myself too busy to face the demons I had created. Why is it that one of the scariest things in the world is being alone...especially for women?? Let me tell you, once you face that fear there is not much that can stop you. Your outlook on relationships change...where before I was terrified of having someone leave me, I soon found myself no longer afraid. I was free and able to express myself in a more confident way. I was able to enter and exist relationships without being a clingy, possessive, damaged girlfriend. And without feeling like if things went bad it was the end of the world. I would look at Avi and tell him, "we've been here before and we survived". Some how it worked. Because no matter what, I would always have ME to fall back on. I wish I could explain better how I got to that point and what it feels like. All I can tell you is that you will know it when it happens.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sliding down the curve

There have been many significant 'turning points' in my life. Some are of the common variety; getting married, getting divorced, getting fired (that one really hurt). Some are not so common; suffering from anorexia in high school, losing my dad in an automobile accident 7 months ago, having 3 miscarriages and 2 tubal pregnancies (yes, I am childless)...but two events really stand out as life altering. I didn't pick them, they picked I can't feel guilty or bad if they don't seem like they should be all that significant to anyone else. Or that the death of my father isn't one of them...I don't think that has really sunk in yet, although it certainly has impacted my life greatly. One involves the death of my horse, Maxx, in 1998. The other was a trip to Death Valley in October 2008.

Maxx was one of the biggest pain-in-the-asses I had ever met. Oh, don't get me wrong, I thought he was cute, in a pathetic sort of way, the day I drove to Temecula to see him. I had wanted a horse for several years after having to sell my previous horse when my father (and therefore the rest of the family) got orders to Alaska when I was 16. Now, at 21, I was ready. My then husband was stationed at Edwards AFB in California and they had a stables there that we could afford. I found Maxx in the Horse Trader. He was a rescue from the Charo Rodeo and had been used for tripping...a cruel "sport" where horses are chased and then roped by their rear legs and thrown to the ground. Sounds like a blast. But he was only $500 and even though I didn't HAVE $500, I could figure out how to get it if I liked what I saw.

And I did like him. He was so damaged that I sensed that he needed me, and that I needed him too. Thirty days later he was delivered to the stables and I was a proud horse woman again. Maxx had to be gelded right away. He was 2 years old and abused...the last thing he needed was that stud mentality! But it didn't seem to help much. He was stubborn, acted like a stud, and was terrified of everything. It took about 4 months to be able to pick his feet up for cleaning. And over the course of the next 2 years we fought like brother and sister over EVERYTHING! I put up ads to try to sell him and even offered him to a local trainer...for free!

We got stationed a little further north to Travis AFB near Napa. They have a beautiful stable with a covered arena and real stalls. There are several really high caliber dressage and eventing trainers in the area and I decided to try to make a go of it with Maxx. After all, no one else wanted him so I was stuck. We spent a lot of time together. He was the first (and only) horse I ever 'broke'. We learned everything from the ground up...together. He started trusting me so much that I could now crawl under his belly, right between his legs, scarred from the rope burns from his days in the rodeo. We would go on trail rides, just the two of us, and I would play Beethoven on my walkman. I had bought speakers that I carried in a fanny pack so he could enjoy the music too. We even went to a few shows and did quite well!

Maxx was the first to know that I was pregnant (this would end up being my first miscarriage). I was riding him in the dressage arena when I noticed how tender my breasts were. I just knew I was pregnant and I told him as we walked around...afraid to tell anyone else because I had recently found out that I COULDN'T get pregnant. A few weeks later I lost the baby and my bond with Maxx grew stronger. I focused my energy on him so that I didn't have to deal with the pain of losing a baby. If I couldn't be a 'real' woman, I could at least be a great rider/trainer.

It was a gorgeous spring morning and Maxx had been cooped up for days due to rain. The turnouts had just a little new grass coming in. I remember insisting that he needed to be turned out. I told my then husband that I would let Maxx out on my way to work but he had to promise to bring him in at lunch. I didn't want him eating too much grass. The morning went by like any other day. By late morning I got a phone was from someone at the stables, I can't recall who, but they asked if Maxx was turned out and wanted to know which one he was in. I told them, a bit of panic in my voice. They told me I needed to get down there right away. Something had gone wrong.

I told my boss I had to go and took off for the stables. I could see Maxx standing in the turn out...looking towards me. I went as fast as my legs could take me. The man holding onto Maxx's lead rope told me that he had been running, having a good time, when all of a sudden he heard a loud pop...almost like a gun went off. Then Maxx was running on 3 legs...his left hind leg tucked up. I could see it was swollen. I ran my hands down his side...feeling as best I could. He put his toe down and his 'ankle' twisted in a grotesque manner. I knew it was broken. The vet was on the way.

I stood looking at him. He was so perfect. He had grown into a beautiful horse, nicely muscled, his coat shining. So different from when I first got him and through his awkward years. The vet came and we slowly limped Maxx back to the stable to take xrays. I put him in his stall and we went to David Grant Medical Center and begged the hospital staff to develop the images. His fetlock was definitely broken. I insisted on taking the xrays to UC Davis for a second opinion and to discuss if there were any.

The vet at Davis confirmed the diagnosis saying that Maxx's ankle was shattered. "Imagine a bag of ice", is what she said. "There's a 75% chance that if we attempt surgery I will put him down as soon as I open him up and see the damage. It's always worse then what the image shows." She then informed me that the real risk come AFTER surgery, if he survived. It would be a horrible attempt at recovery and he would never be the same. He would never be able to leave his stall. She practically begged me to put him down.

I wanted someone else to decide. I couldn't utter the words "put him down"...I didn't want to play God, who I had just decided I hated. But no one else would do it...they couldn't. We drove back to the stables and I saw Maxx in his stall. He was happy to see me but looked confused because I'm sure he was in pain and didn't understand why his leg didn't work anymore. I was an emotional wreck. How could he look so perfect and feel so warm. He nuzzled me and ate a carrot out of my hand. That one little bone was going to cost him his life. No, my insistence that he be turned out that day was costing him his life. I was to blame. Not only couldn't my body make and keep a baby but I couldn't even keep my horse alive. Babies are fragile but Maxx was about 950 pounds. I had failed yet again.

The vet handed me some scissors so I could cut a lock of hair from Maxx's forelock. She asked if I wanted to stay and be there for him. I couldn't, not with this kind of guilt. My friend stayed with him. They took him to the back, behind the tack rooms and let him eat some grass. The vet administered the leathal dose and he fell to the ground...the new spring grass still in his mouth, he was 6 years old. Later, I was given his front shoes...someone had pulled them off for me to have. His stall was decorated with flowers...a beautiful woven tapestry.

Something changed inside of me...maybe something died besides Maxx. I used to have horrible dreams of forgetting I had a horse for weeks or months or years and then running to the stables to find him emaciated, standing knee deep in feces and mud. These dreams lasted for years. I was a shell of a person. I tried to talk to the pastor from my church. He looked at me as if I were crazy. "Horses and pets are not like people, I don't even know if they have souls or go to heaven. You just have to get over it." I never went back to that church, or any church for that matter. If there aren't horses and dogs and cats in heaven then I don't want to go...that would NOT be heaven to me.

This was one of the most significant times in my life. This marked the start of my confusion...who was I without Maxx. Who was I without children? What do I do now? I am a damaged person...babies die inside of me and horses die due to my actions. I entered a very dark time filled with paralyzing depression. I suffered another miscarriage about a year later. I felt I had wished it upon myself because my husband was leaving for Greece and would be gone a year. How could I have a baby alone?? When I lost this baby I knew it was my fault for not wanting it. How could I have become such a horrible person?? More husband went to Greece, I slept as much as I could and never left the house. My marriage was falling apart and I finally got on anti-depressants. It was too late though. I didn't recognize myself anymore...I was a stranger in my own body. I went from a somewhat confident woman to a weak girl...easily taken advantage of..and boy did some people exploit that...but that story is for later.

The start of the curve...or how I enabled my GPS.

I'm no stranger to journaling, which is very similar to blogging except for one 'minor' detail...a blog can be read by other people. I won't pretend to be a writer or to have much of anything worthy of sharing, but I am here nonetheless. Over the past few years I have become a little bit more confident, a little more daring, and a lot more open. My father's death this past October has helped me realize that it really is true, life is short and you can't always plan for death. I've said for years that I don't want to be that little old lady, on her death bed, wishing she had taken more chances and not been afraid to live. But I was/am on that path to regret. I think most of us are...(especially women).

Most of my life has been spent trying to make other people happy with me. Whether it was obsessively trying to get good grades in school, letting classmates copy my homework (I thought this would make us friends), giving up college for my then husband's Air Force career ( I had a year and half left to get my bachelors degree and had just made the Dean's List with a 4.0 GPA), or giving up my friends and dreams to be available for the various men who entered my life, and later left me broken-hearted and unaware of who I was anymore.

It was hard to be an adult, in my late-30's, with no idea of who I was or what I even liked to do. I had read tons self-help books and would get out a piece of paper to try to list all of the good things about me, my accomplishments, my likes and dislikes, my short-term and long-term goals, and all of those things I was sure everyone else my age had already figured out long ago. I would freeze...what do I like to do??? I know, ride and train horses. But wait, was that me NOW or me at 16 years old. Did I really want to commit that kind of time into training again because I also like boxing (it's a great workout and makes you feel tough). Well, boxing is another huge commitment in time and energy. Maybe I want to go back to school?? For what though? I don't have the same interests now and don't necessarily want a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice. I like to read but had focused so much on 'fixing' myself that I only read self-help and other non-fiction books. It wasn't really for pleasure. I would find myself so confused every weekend, wondering what to do with my free time that I started to volunteer for over-time at work and eventually took up a second job. Staying busy is a great way to keep you from getting to know yourself.

I took up yoga and meditation (thanks to some more self-help books and the wonderful book "Eat, Pray, Love")...nothing too serious and one of those things I still tell myself to do more of. I visited an ashram in Oakland several times ( Learning to sit, to breath, to just be. I read some of the basic teachings of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. I know, it sounds strange and "out-there"...but I was at my wits end really. I'm not a very religious person, I have no strong attachment to any particular religion, I'm not a fan of church and had a bad experience at the Methodist church I was baptised at as an adult (maybe I'll talk about that another time), but I was missing something. Not necessarily God or Buddha or was more along the lines of that *thing* that connects our physical body with our mind...the thoughts, fears, feelings, dreams and creations. There was a disconnect with what I was thinking and what I was doing. The ashram helped by opening my mind and teaching me that some thoughts just need to be released.

Attending to this disconnect helped open my mind to a new adventure which has led me to this's a good place, more then just a happy place, it's contentment and peace as well. Don't get me wrong though, I still have a long way to go, but I feel like the GPS has finally recalculated my course after making too many wrong turns.
So, this will become my new way of journaling. Maybe someone will find something of value here. Maybe I will just talk to myself. Either way, it is liberating and a fear that I can say I have overcome...kind of like public speaking.
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