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Posted in Adventures With Humans

Arabian Horse

In consideration of the word, “courage,” what pops into my head is a quote from the Roman, Stoic philosopher, Seneca who said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” I don’t think anyone would argue with him, and I was going to say, “especially these days,” but looking back, it’s always been tough. Boons like the discovery of fire, coffee, penicillin, the lightbulb, and box stores brought mankind ahead into urbanity, but always alongside difficulties such as natural disasters, market collapses, and the Ford Pinto, unless you didn’t mind your ride doubling as a barbecue. War and oppression in various religious, or gender-related forms sizzle through history’s timeline like pop rocks thrown on a wet sidewalk; each scenario arising from the juvenile behaviour of adolescent men in adult bodies given too much power by other juvenile men in other positions of too much power; wankers all. Despite the damage–the loss, we find our collective courage, and society continues on. Individual stories of courage wind through the broader array, and are illustrative not only of winning, but also suffering defeat, or disappointment, then being present enough to learn from the experience, and emerge wiser.
The most courageous person I ever knew was my second cousin, Dan. He had vision problems  and by the time he was twenty-seven, had had both of his real eyes replaced with glass ones. Treatments were tried, one eye removed, then later on, the second taken. The thing was, during some of those years, Dan rode in the rodeo.  He got the bug after he and his friends began roping dairy cows on their farm, much to the displeasure of his mother. When he began riding in real rodeos, his mother stopped going to watch. As the story goes, he was taken out of the ring in an ambulance more than once. Later on, after he had had enough of all of that pounding, he settled into raising and training horses. When I met him, he and his wife ran a small ranch. I had been learning to ride myself, so was eager to meet Dan, and go for a ride with him. I followed him into the barn, and watched as he turned on the radio–a kind of beacon he used to help him navigate. He pulled out a quiet horse for me, and followed likewise. It was a fun ride, and I was amazed at his ability. Years later, he and his wife ran a ranch in Tennessee where they bought and sold Arabian horses. When Dan was checking a horse to see if it had decent confirmation or not, he would run his hands all over it, feeling its’ bones and muscle. The story goes that one day, he was checking a horse when he paused, “ I think I know this horse. Did we own this horse a while back?” Sure enough, they had.
I can’t imagine doing what Dan did. I mean, riding the rodeo is nuts even with two good eyes. That took guts, and to continue doing what he loved, hanging with the horses, that’s impressive. I did some guiding for blind people who wanted to downhill ski. My fella was a man who worked for Hydro and had been slowly losing his sight. I can’t imagine it. He liked some speed, and I did my best for him. We had radios and headsets, so I would describe the terrain in front of him. Go ahead and close your eyes while doing anything. Right; courage.
 Courage in itself signifies success at combatting fear, a primal, often healthy response that keeps us from being bitten by snakes, eaten by bears, and away from politicians. The component ‘fear’ comes in different intensities. After my marriage ended, I had to learn to be okay with going out and doing things on my own, like eating in a restaurant, going to the coffee shop, or attending concerts. It was either that, or stay in, and how are you going to meet anyone if you do that? This wasn’t exactly ‘fear.’ It was more like a childish discomfort, but I’m just trying to set the scale.
I took flying lessons for a while. I loved it. One thing we did, not sure if they still teach it now, was a spin. Here, you took the plane to 4000 feet, and then aimed the nose up while flying at low speed until the plane went into what’s called a ‘stall.’ This doesn’t refer to the engine stalling, but rather that the airplane is moving so slowly that there is no longer any lift.  An alarm sounds, and the nose drops toward the ground like a stone–and I mean that it drops like a stone, and sometimes, it will spin at the same time. The learning is to follow the specific process and pull the plane out of its plummet-into-the-dirt trajectory and back into flight mode. The first time I experienced this was in a small plane with my brother who had his license. I trusted him with anything, so when he did this, yes, I was terrified, but also thrilled. After the first time, I couldn’t get enough; like a ride at a fair. I had to talk myself into it each time I did it on my own, flying solo, but I knew that if I just followed the procedure, I’d be fine. Perhaps ‘thrill,” is fear under control.
My worst experience of fear happened one crisp, moonlit winter night in 1988. My actor husband was downtown doing a show, and I was returning from dinner with friends around 11 pm. I pulled into the driveway of the bungalow where we had our basement apartment.  I turned off the engine and right away, it was as if a voice spoke to me: I was to get my house key ready, get out of the car, run to the door, get in and lock it behind me. So this was odd. I wasn’t afraid right away, but with such instructions given from the ether, I felt a kind of primal energy and acknowledgement. I ran to the door, got in and locked it behind me as directed. I took off my coat, shaking my head, wondering what the hell that was about. I went down the stairs to our apartment and into our bedroom to lower the blinds over the sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard. We never used the yard during the winter, but had a routine of lowering the blinds when we arrived home. On this night, I saw the shadow of a man, backlit by the bright, full moon as he looked in at me through one of the sliding glass doors. I gasped, and fled back into the hallway, turning off the light and standing against the wall between our bedroom doorway and the room beside it. I couldn’t move, could barely breathe; I was ‘frozen with fear,’ as the textbooks say. Time slowed, as if I was existing between the seconds, trapped in surreal disbelief about what was happening. I knew I had to get to the phone–landlines back then. It seemed to take forever, but I did it, and called 911. The police came. The man had fled, but what remained was a worn path in the snow in the back yard–so the fella had been keeping an eye on me, on things here. How he knew my husband wasn’t going to be home creeps me out to this day, a detail of the thoroughness of a very bad man. He had knocked over all of the garbage cans out at the side door, like he had flung himself at me. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard that since it was a loud enough ruckus that the neighbours heard it. The police suggested that I might have had a three-second lead on my would-be attacker. I am indebted to that voice in my car, wherever it came from.
A crummy add-on to this scenario was that my husband went on tour shortly afterward, and I was alone. Some nights, I left the house, always running to my car, and went to a hotel. One night, there was a storm, and of course there was a branch banging against a window. One day, someone pressed the front doorbell. It must have stuck, because it kept ringing every few minutes. The weather was unusually cold, which could have caused the malfunction, but it also could have been the attacker, the bad man and I wasn’t about to wander outside to see. Nobody was home in the upper part of the bungalow–they would have answered their doorbell, so I climbed over the door that separated our living spaces and checked the front door, but didn’t open it. I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t sure. I went back downstairs to the electrical panel and switched the doorbell breaker, so now I had quiet.
Here’s the kicker: I had phoned the farm and let my parents know about the event. A few days later, I drove there to talk in person. My dad was elsewhere, possibly travelling, but my mother was home. I arrived just after noon, came into the house, and found that she was upstairs having a gin nap already. I continued, hopeful that she understood the gravity of my visit and would summon her sober self. But no greeting at the door, and “Oh, I’m so glad you’re okay, tell me everything, and how are you…” never happened.  I went to her bedroom, greeted her, then sat on the end of the bed. She did not raise her head, but must have said “hello,” or I would not have begun to tell her about my terrible night. While I spoke, I noticed the sun shining into the old farmhouse room casting shadow in such a way that it reminded me of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’ a 1920 German Expressionist film full of lots of surreal angles and shading. How perfect. I finished telling my tale. What should have happened was that my mother roused herself, sat with me on the end of the bed, putting her arms around me, holding me like someone who cared. What happened instead was, she sat up in bed, like Kathryn O’Hara in ‘Beetlejuice’, and said, “Well I don’t understand why it took you so long to get to the phone.” My mother has never been a poet. You know the event itself was traumatic, terrifying, but this remarkable dropping-of-the-ball by my mother, different as it was in texture, was almost worse.
After my marriage ended in 2011, I left the house and went to live, temporarily in the basement of, at that time, an female acquaintance of mine. The woman was a talented artist, but had a history of emotional difficulties evidenced by a trail of fractured relationships. My friends warned me about moving in, but I was in a bind, and yes, it was only temporary. “How bad could it be,” I thought. ‘Temporary,’ ended up leaking into the sixth month. I had done my best to keep my distance, but the only kitchen was shared so there was interaction. One day it wasn’t terrible, but the next, something would set her off, like a bill, or my van parked in the driveway. Through the friend of a friend, I found a small room in a great part of the city with a woman who loved the psychologist Carl Jung, like I did, and who wrote for TV, so we had things in common. I told my artist friend as carefully as I could that I had found other accommodations, highlighting the fact that my stay was only supposed to be temporary, and now she could have her house back. I was taking a psychology course at the time, and thank goodness. A day or two after I told her about my new address, she began sending bonkers texts, the words of a crazy person, attacking, juvenile, and completely uncalled for. Thanks to my psych studies, I knew not to engage, and to be careful. The days before the move were horrible. I asked her to stop texting and suggested that we talk in person once I returned. When I arrived to talk with her, she sat facing away, focused on her computer, saying that she was “busy paying bills.” I mean, if she liked me at all, she could have offered to help me move, but that never happened. On the day, I began loading my van, and she began behaving more oddly, to the point where I was concerned. I left the house with this first load, pulled into an LCBO parking lot and cried. I remember it was snowing! What is it with me, terrible experiences, and snow? I spent that night on the sofa at my new place, warmly greeted, and listened to by my new housemate, Andrea, and her friend Sabine. I will never forget that night. It was like being taken in by loving arms and protected, and cared for. It had been a while since I had felt that.
The next day, I returned to disassemble my own bed, and my table. As I was doing this, the artist repeatedly flitted back and forth past my bedroom doorway like some spectre. It was now raining and stormy, you know, like another horror movie. The vibe was nuts, so I put the police on speed dial. I kept in touch with my two boys, and a mutual friend of the artist and myself whom we’ll call ‘Jackie,’ sending along crazy texts as they came in. The flitting was one thing. Then, there was a point when I was carrying my headboard up the stairs that lead from where I was in the basement, up and out the side door. As I got near the top, the artist reached down and across from the kitchen and slammed closed the big, inner wooden door in front of me. I couldn’t believe it.  I kept my eyes down, calmly reached ahead, opened the door and hauled the headboard through. I returned to get more, to get my table, legs separate and easy, but the ‘table’ part, a challenge. I was poised to haul this up the stairs, but discovered the artist standing on the steps with a paint brush, having decided that it was time to paint the stairwell walls, and this was as good a time as any. I put the table down and waited. This was unsettling, and not at all okay. Despite being worried as hell, I was working to breathe and stay calm so as not to make a mistake. She had gone off the deep end, was much bigger than me, and could have done anything. If she had been a man, there’s no question that I would have called the police.
The next day, a friend, Jeff–that’s his real name, came to help me haul out my mattress–the only thing I could not move on my own. Bonkers had the doors locked, and had stipulated that she would unlock them at a certain time, and I had half an hour to get in and get out. We heard the door unlock. I told Jeff, to keep his eyes down, not to engage in any way. We came in and could see the artist standing at the kitchen counter drinking a glass of water. You know, the kitchen? Where the knives live? As we descended the stairs, Jeff looked at me with an expression like a startled ‘Shaggy,’ from ‘Scooby-Doo,’ and whispered, “The energy in here is awful!” We were in and out quick.
After this I reached out to several of the artist’s friends, describing her behaviour. Nobody seemed terribly surprised at what had happened and they all agreed that she needed counselling. I just happened to be the latest sucker to have experienced it, and well, fine, but the real disappointment came a few months later, when Jackie sent me an email inviting me and a group of her friends to an event. I looked at the list and gasped out loud when I saw the name of the artist. I mean that I had a significant physical reaction almost before I fully recognized the name. No warning. No ‘head’s up,’ about who was coming. Even something like, “Hey, I know the artist scared the absolute crap out of you, but I’ve invited her to a fun play! Hope to see you there!” would have at least acknowledged my distress. Apparently, Jackie saw the whole thing as a communication error; an issue only between the artist and myself. I remember the feeling in my gut like the bottom dropped out. Weren’t friends supposed to watch out for each other?  I learned deep in, not to assume anyone has my back except me, a lesson I hadn’t brought to light until I wrote this paragraph.
In his book, “Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,”  David Whyte, the Anglo-Irish poet writes, “To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.” I like that. I take that as inner potential summoned and enduring its’ inevitable emergence on a path of experiences different from what your ego had envisioned to be set in from the beginning. Stop battling it. Open to it instead, and you will learn things you had not imagined, about yourself, and people in general. To appreciate the remarkable; to witness courage in others shows presence. To suffer disappointment, to be left twisting but to continue, feels like courage, a faith perhaps that ‘you were made to withstand this.’  I know that I will never know everything.  What I have learned, blows my mind.