Twilight over Tioga Lake

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Methinks the Turkey Doth Protest Too Much

A while ago I posted a story called "Faultless Angel."  I am hoping it will be a chapter in a memoir I am slowly writing about my child and teenage-hood experiences at a horse stable.  In honor of the holidays, I thought I would put up this one.  It is mainly about turkeys--living with them, loving them, and eating them.  Hope you enjoy it, and enjoy the holidays.

“So I have some news, everybody.”
Terri strolled into the aisle.  Andi, Steph, and I paused with our pitchforks.
“We are getting some new Ashberry Hillians.”  Ooh, this was exciting.
“A new horse?” I wondered.  
“Ha ha.  No, thank god.”
“Doggie?”  chirped Steph.
“Uh, more children to use as slave labor?” suggested Andi.
“I’ll give you a hint.  We can eventually eat them.”
Now Terri had said things in the past that hinted that she was not entirely opposed to the concept of eating people.  If we have to right to eat animals, why not each other?  We three girls looked at each other and then Terri with slightly fearful wondering.
A three way “What?!”
“The farrier shoes for a guy that has a bunch of turkey chicks and is giving some away.  We are going to raise them and then eat them.  As true free-range turkeys!”
The concept of free range was fairly new back then, and I wasn’t quite sure of the meaning.  We were all curious about the pet then food creatures that were about become part of our semi-functional family, and thus the topic for the day’s tack room talk was provided.
“So what does free range mean anyway?” I asked, foaming up the scrubby sponge with glycerin.  I pictured a gang of turkeys cruising the hills in ATVs.
“It means the turkeys or chickens are free to walk around and not be stuffed into cages smaller than themselves with their beaks cut off.”
Steph looked up from her furtive scrubbing.  “Is that what happens?”
“Oh yeah, you didn’t know that?”  Terri responded calmly, wrapping up Court’s bridle.  “That along with pumping them full of chemicals and antibiotics.  “The free range ones are free of that too.”
I looked at my lunch bag that had a turkey sandwich in it and frowned.  Suddenly I wasn’t in such a hurry to finish my tack and eat.
“Are there free range cows too?”  Andi wondered.
“Well, believe it or not, beef cows don’t have that bad of a life,” Terri answered as she started on the short black dressage girth.  “They get to wander around a bit.  It’s the milk cows that have the living hell.  They’re impregnated again and again, and are forced to stand still all day.  Then of course their babies are killed for veal.  So yes, you can buy cruelty free milk these days.”
“GOD, Terri, are you trying to make me VOMIT!”  Steph exclaimed, foam flying from the sponge in her emphatically gesturing hands.
“How do you know this is all true anyway?”  I asked.  I always assume Terri is right, but why should I?  Even though she almost always is.
Terri smiled that annoying half smile when she knows she is correct.  “Jenny told me, and I’ve read about it in magazines.  Think about it.  Meat is processed in mass quantities for the public.  What other way could it be done?”
We were contemplating and silent for a moment.  Then Steph tosses her hair back and proclaims, “Well, I’m becoming a vegetarian!  Right now!”
“Don’t do that!”  Terri said.  “You have to help eat our new pets!”
I cracked up.  “Terri!” chided Andi.  
Tack finished, we opened our lunches.  Steph contemplated her ham sandwich, and decided to become a vegetarian tomorrow.

A couple days later our new fowl friends arrived.  You would have thought a celebrity was coming.  “The turkeys are coming, the turkeys are coming!” Steph was exuberantly shouting all day.  Andi and I shook our heads and laughed, not exactly sharing her enthusiasm.  I loved all animals, even slimies and scalies.  But I was never really into birds.  They made annoying noise, you couldn’t really pet them, and they got feathers everywhere.  But the turkeys would be a diversion. 
“Here comes Thanksgiving dinner!”  Junior strolled down the driveway, carrying five turkey chicks in a grate.  We had prepared the old rabbit hutch for them.  Everyone put down their pitchforks and hoses to greet the newcomers.  I must say, they were halfway cute.  They were certainly much bigger than chicken chicks, and covered in gray downy feathers.  
“Oh, I LOVE them!”  squealed Steph.   “Are we really going to eat them?”
“Wait ‘till they get bigger,” laughed Junior.  “They won’t be so cute, and these suckers can be mean!  You may change your mind.”
  We barely heard him over our cooing.  
“Ok, men,” Terri commanded.  “Time for Operation Move the Turkeys.”  We tried just opening the crate door and holding it up to the hutch, but they wouldn’t go in.  Not a good start in terms of proving their intelligence.  We ended up having to reach in and manually put them in.  I was scared they would peck me, so opted to watch.  It was all Steph could do to keep from kissing them.
Our turkeys grew quite fast.  Shortly, they were “teenagers,” and we were able to distinguish them from each other.  We had two females and three males.  The males’ pulpy wattles were starting to show, the downy feathers were replaced with silky dark ones, and their talons more dangerous looking.  Despite the “don’t name an animal you’re going to eat” credo, we wanted to.  
Terri, Steph, Andi, Pam, and I peered into the hutch.  
“That one guy is really big,” noted Andi.
Pam and I were currently studying English literature in school, and had a certain playwright on the brain.  “How about…Shakespeare?”  I suggested.  The others nodded thoughtfully.
“Well then, naturally the others should be Shakespeare characters,” said Pam.
“Macbeth!” I yelled, my favorite Shakespeare play.
“Hamlet was from Shakespeare, right?” asked Terri.
“Indeed,” said Andi.  “And they both die horrible bloody deaths.  It’s fitting.”
So there were our tragic male turkeys.  Steph seemed to have a bond with the two females, so we left the naming of them to her.  We let the turkeys walk around loose during the day, and Steph could often be patting and speaking lovingly to them.  
The next day I was cleaning out the shed row when I heard Steph’s unmistakable undulating voice.  I walked around the corner and saw her kneeling near the two females, who were pecking the ground without any notice of Steph.
“Oh Thoughtful, you’re so beautiful and so nice!  Curiosity, did you find some food?  Oh yum yum!  You are such WONderful turkeys!” 
I really tried to hold it in, but an explosion of laughter burst from me.  “Thoughtful?  Curiosity?  Ahem.”
Steph stood up, completely unbothered by my outburst. “Hi Lissa!  Yes, meet the two loveliest turkeys in the world, Thoughtful and Curiosity.”
By now Terri and Andi had approached, smiling widely.  “And how did you bestow such names upon them, dear Steph?”  Andi asked.
“Well, Thoughtful is just that--very thoughtful and nice.  She likes to be patted, and she genuinely enjoys the company of people.  And Curiosity isn’t quite as affectionate, but she just loves to explore!  Aren’t they WONderful?”
We had trouble hearing the end of her description as we were doubled over laughing.  
“Oh Steph!” gasped Terri.  “You are amazing.”
But Steph truly was amazing.  No one else would take the time to examine the personality traits of these seemingly simple creatures.  We may have laughed, but Steph was to be admired.

Shakespeare and company continued to grow.  Their size and stature became quite impressive, particularly the males.  We all remember making turkeys using our hands in kindergarten, and then using different colors for the feathers.  At first glance turkey feathers look black.  But when the light hits them, they take on a beautiful iridescent quality.  Shades of green, orange, and burgundy appear.  Their wattles were red pulpy lumps of a plasticky looking substance.  One weird wattle hung over the large curved beak, and they could bring it in or let it hang down. Pretty gross.  What I found most intriguing about the turkeys were their talons.  They were huge, with flesh colored scales and monstrous nails.  Jurassic Park had come out recently, and every time I looked at the turkey feet all I could picture were the raptors' killer claws.  Take one look at turkey legs and tell me birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs.  
One day I noticed we were down a bird.  I knew the answer, but I asked Terri what happened to Macbeth.  
“He’s in the fridge.  Want to try him?  He‘s quite tasty!”
I cringed inwardly, but only for a second.  “Yeah, why not?  It will be my first free range turkey!”
  We went into the house and Terri pulled a half eaten carcass out of the fridge.  It was a little strange to think this was once Macbeth, but I got over it.  He was tasty, leaner and healthier seeming than most turkeys you eat.  And hell, he had a good life.  Better than most poultry. 
Junior hunted, so the idea of raising animals for food was nothing bothersome to them.  The first time I went into Terri’s house I started at the sight of a giant buck head bolted to the wall.  “Oh that’s Rudolph,” Junior joked.  “He missed the roof and ended up crashing through the wall!”  I laughed weakly, not quite used to the idea of hunting yet.
Terri often talked about the hypocrisy she and Junior faced when people brought up hunting. (Hunting for sport and food as opposed to trophy hunting or illegal poaching, which of course we were all against.)  “How can kill such a beautiful animal?”  Terri would mock about people referring to deer hunting.  “Yeah, enjoy your prime rib and fur jacket!”  Terri wanted to yell back.  I used to be one of “those people“, but Terri did get me thinking about it.  It was one thing to decry hunting if you were a strict vegan, but most people against hunting are not.  After the horrid stories were heard about the poultry and dairy farms, a hunted deer, duck, or rabbit’s life and death didn’t seem so bad.  You have a normal peaceful life, and then you are killed instantly (hopefully) and that’s it.  It’s quite different than being stuffed in a containing device, force fed and injected with antibiotics, and unwillingly made to watch your companions die.  Terri also said conscientious, responsible hunters like Junior and his friends knew more about nature than most and made regular contributions to wildlife associations.  Indeed, the majority of us wrapped up in our happy hypocrisy do more damage to animal life that many hunters do.   

The unusual rapport between Steph and Thoughtful and Curiosity continued for a while, although I believed it was pretty one sided.  I will admit Thoughtful did seem nicer than the other turkeys.  By that I mean she didn’t regularly try to attack you.  Curiosity on the other hand, was a total bitch.  While you were minding your own business cleaning stalls or something, her ugly face suddenly became florid and she started making this eerie “wooo, wooo” noise.  That meant you were in trouble.  She would proceed to the nearest life form and start barbarously pecking at it!  One may find it ridiculous to be scared by a turkey, but it hurt.  And it prevented work from being done.
  One day I was sick of being harassed by Curiosity.  I lamented to Terri about my fear of dismemberment by peck.  Terri simply said, “Show her who’s boss.  You’re bigger than her!”  I interpreted this as do what I feel is necessary, and returned to cleaning the shed row.
Soon enough, I heard it.  The trilly “wooo wooo!”  Curiosity approached, her vulture like countenance and vapid eyes fixated on my calves.  I glanced at the rake in my hand, suddenly no longer a common farm tool but a weapon against the ravages of barn fowl.  I pushed her away with the rake.  Unfazed, she returned.  Pushed again.  Same reaction.  This time, I gently hit her with the flat side.  Didn’t faze her a bit!  If anything, she came back with more bravura.  I hit her not-so-gently this time, and the thing acted as if nothing happened.  Was she a masochist or something?   Basically, I ended up whacking this turkey with the rake a number of times before she finally gave up.  I stood there for a moment, feeling proud that I dominated over this relentless creature.  Then guilt melted over me as I realized I had just committed animal abuse.   I waved it away.  Curiosity was not hurt, and the bitch deserved it.  My calves were safe.     

Steph took her love of the turkeys too far one day.  (Though it was always too far in my opinion.)  We were cleaning the indoor stalls when we heard Steph’s voice rising in  a crescendo: “Oh my God.  OH MY GOD!”  She came running into the aisle.  “Thoughtful…Thoughtful BIT me!!”  I stepped out of the stall, and sure enough there was a red mark on her cheek!  And she looked like her feelings were truly hurt.  Terri’s response was the usual: to start laughing uncontrollably.  
“HA HA HA!  Oh my god Steph!” she gasped, then mimed kissing someone.
Andi was laughing harder than her mellow self.  “Steph, why on Earth would you try to kiss a turkey?”
Steph continued to look betrayed.  “I just thought were had a bond, I…hey!  I wasn’t trying to KISS her!”  Round of laughter again.
I breathed deeply, trying to compose myself.  “Then how did she peck you on the cheek?”
“I was just talking to her!”  Suddenly her expression changed.  “Hmmf!  Junior was right!  Turkeys are evil.  Kill them now!”  
Another explosion of laughter ensued until we were exhausted.  Terri said, “Well, Steph, sounds like Thoughtful is no longer thoughtful.”  
“Yeah,” said Andi.  “A more appropriate name would be…Hateful!”
“Perfect!” agreed Steph, rubbing her hands together and that occasional maniacal look appearing in her eyes.
“And Curiosity can be Furiosity!” shouted Terri.  
Steph steered clear of the newly dubbed birds for the rest of their lives.  Incidentally, Steph did become a vegetarian of sorts for a while.  She continued to turkey--with uninhibited abandon, as if enacting revenge each time.

Hamlet and Macbeth were the only turkeys that met their demise by consumption.  We discovered Furiosity dead in the hutch one day.  She always looked like she was pecked on by the others.  Maybe she met her karmic fate.
Poor Thoughtful/Hateful had a sad ending.  Taking her free range status to the max, she ended up wandering into the woods and coming back every once in a while for food.  Once she was gone for a week, and we thought she had been killed by a coyote or something.  But then she wandered back in, looking as delirious as a turkey possibly can. She smelled terrible, and Terri theorized she had been sitting on rotten eggs.  Terri and Karen tried pouring water down her throat, but she still died.  
Shakespeare ended up living for over a year, and became our mascot of sorts.  He was huge, and a true poster turkey for Thanksgiving paraphernalia.  One could see him proudly strutting around, fanning his feathers and making this funny snorting sound.  Shakespeare was rather amusing, as he would gobble every time I sneezed.  He was fairly cool, and you could touch his weird wrinkly head and silky feathers without him biting.  The only things he tried to attack (and he was too big to move fast) were the blue manure bucket and my blue raincoat.  Somehow blue must have equated with other male turkeys in his little mind.   
Alas, fat turkeys are not meant to have long lives, and eventually his legs gave out.  We kept him around for a little bit and brought food to him, but it seemed an uncomfortable and undignified life.  Eventually one of the vets put him to sleep and we buried him.  Terri and the rest of us didn’t want to eat our mascot.  
As much smack talking as I may have done about the turkeys, there were fun to have around.  And it was a change to see animals usually used for meat getting a chance to live a "normal" life, even if we did eat a couple of them.  Towards the end of the "turkey era," Terri and Karen were seen dancing around them and singing, "We had joy, we had fun, we had good times in the sun..."
Of course, no one experienced the range of emotions a turkey can put one through as much as Steph.



Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mono Lake Series

For a couple years now, I have had the privilege of visiting one of the most special places in the world: Mono Lake.  Mono Lake is an unusual lake in the high desert of Lee Vining, CA, east of Yosemite Park.  It made such an impression on me I wrote three poems about it.  You maybe wondering what makes it so unique.  The poems give you an idea of its qualities, but I encourage you to check out and learn for yourself.  Better yet, visit Mono Lake!

These poems involve three very different experiences there, which depended on the time of year it was and the weather.  Hope you like them and the pictures.

Mono Swim  8/20/07

The landscape: Mars, 10,000 years ago.

My feet hesitate at the edge of a brackish lake.  

There are three reasons to stay out: prickly salt in eyes, clouds of crevice-finding brine shrimp, thousands of flies gliding on surface.  No, millions of flies.

And then there is one reason to go in: why not.

The flies are uninterested in me, and kindly part.  My pallid legs swirl saline and fresh water into a glassy oilyness.  I am intrigued.

At first, some fear.  The brine shrimp--will they go places they shouldn’t? 

But soon, acceptance.  And even enjoyment.  I swim through thousands of tiny feather dusters.

I look closer at these Sea Monkey cousins.  “They’re either mating or dead,” I tell my companion.

“Maybe it will bring us good mojo.”  Maybe.

I watch the shrimp swarming me, curious of my flesh.  Is it wrong to like this?

Finally my feet pedal without touching the sand.  It is effortless; I walk in space.

The utter nowness of it: me, the muted colors, the creatures, the salt.  I run in water, in absolute silent peace.

When I exit, the water leaves quickly but the salt stays.  

I sit and draw pictures on my skin.  Uncomfortable and content.

Soon my friend leads us to a thankful creek.

I plunge myself into the river animal’s innards, freeing myself from saline prison.  

Giggle, shiver, gasp.  

Clutch my face and think:

To Whatever there is. Thank you. 

Mono Wade  6/10/08

This time it is different.

It is early summer, a season confused.  The solar broiler is on high during the day, but nighttime still requires a hat.

The grasses and willows have yet to be burnt into submission.  Soft and green, they caress my legs on the pilgrimage down to the beach.

We wade through Mono's ghost on this walk--the lake used to be here.  

A skeleton of a boat parts the fragrant sage.  It will never again feel water on its bones.

Now we reach the living body of Mono.  My body pulses with the eager memory of last year's swim.  

At once I see the lake is not the glassy blue I remember.  It is a vivid living green.

I hesitate to go in this time.  The memory is tainted with a bloom of algae.  

Pacing the shore like a distraught animal, my feet make a brrr brrr sound on the salty flats.  We're on a giant crème Brule.  

My friend enters smiling, not having the mental block against the strange floating flora that I do.  

I get over myself and gingerly paw into the water.  But where are my feather duster friends, the shrimp?

"Oh, it's too early for them," says my friend.  That is why there is so much algae--no shrimp to feast on it!

I try to bury the wish for the Mono Lake of my last summer's swim, and enjoy the lake for what it is right now: A being early in its life cycle, waiting for consumption and copulating to happen within its arms.

The algae is beautiful in its own slimy and virid way, while it is in the water.  I watch it swirl around my arm when I make a whirlpool.  But lift it out, and algae becomes a shameless lump of goo.  

Moral of the story?  Be mindful of your memory of the future.

I have to give credit to Deep Survival author Laurence Gonzales for the concept of the "memory of the future."  It is basically another way of saying anticipation.  What drives us to do something (usually) pleasurable is "remembering" how we will feel afterwards.  But sometimes these "memories" are not always accurate, and lead us to disappointment or even danger.

Mono Surf  9/4/08

End of summer at last!  Now my alkali friend will be swimable.  Free of algae, filled with shrimp.  (I realize my preferences are a bit backwards from most.)

This time my companion, a connoisseur of skinny dip spots, leads me to the north end of the lake.  We hike through scratchy brush and skeletal plants hibernating in the heat. Damn me for wearing shorts.

We are blasted by hot, sand speckled wind.  This is not a very fun walk.  But I see our reward ahead--Mono Lake, perfect sky blue with calligraphy lines of white throughout. And a new surprise.  Whitecaps.

This is the alonest spot we’ve attempted yet.  Only the gulls and sandpipers can glare at our nakedness.  I am not worried.  No other humans will come here.

There is no hesitation this time.  The perky waves of coolness feel too good on my 
skin.  For the first time ever, I get my whole body wet before my friend.

And now I float on waves!  Real, ocean-inspired waves live on Mono Lake this day.  I am back home, swimming in Cape Cod again.  Completely buoyant.  Mono Lake holds me and bounces me like an infant.

Laughing out loud does bring drawbacks in the form of a mouthful of Mono water.  I splat it out, thinking of it as a salt and baking soda gargle.  It also stings into my eyes, and pretty much every other mucus membrane.  But so what!  It is too joyous to matter.

We last long this time, leaving only after our salted eyes could take no more.  We wash off in the fresh water river and leave our briny friend until next year.

Walking back, I feel dopey, drunk almost.  Refreshed and happily drained.  

We have been baptized in the name of rollicking happiness.  




Sunday, August 17, 2008

Poems About Invertebrates

That is exactly what this is. I like creepy, crawly, and slimey creatures, what can I say?

I am inspired to show these poems because of what covered Ocean Beach the other day: hundreds of giant dead jellyfish. I think it happens once a year here. They were in the water, on the sand, everywhere. People and dogs eyed the purplish blobs with wary interest.

The first poem is an earlier one, from 2001. It concerns the same phenomenon, except that time they were tiny jellyfish. The second poem is from a more recent experience concerning a slightly more popular creature: butterflies.

Enjoy and enjoy the rest of the summer. It sure went fast...sigh...

Small Death

The day sparkles violently; thrashing foam and glinty sand hit my eyes.

Coins of perfect clear appear under my feet.

Closer perusement reveals pellucid blobs, lying calm on the sand.

It is an unearthly creature in water: half-fluid, it undulates with grace no land walker
could achieve.

But here small shards of rock and screeching sun slowly east the fluidity out of underwater life.

There is no jealousy of the creature in death. Thinned-out, its tentacles grip the sand with rigormortis strength, and organs are frozen in crystal clear gelatin.

Expecting jelly-softness, my reaching hand finds a firmly swollen body, turgid and unnatural.

Not all lie dead. One pulses with minute life, its hydrozoic heart beating, hoping for water.

I help the slippery life meet an unfurling wave. An act of kindness? A sandpiper eats it promptly, or the ambivalent surf rips its dying body, most likely.

But maybe the being softens into full life, and enters the shallows that can become so saturated with small spheres it is like swimming in tapioca. Out of my body and clothes I step into such a sea.

Both of us free from burning land, I watch the embryonic form pulsate with rapture that comes with reinvented life. It gulps sweet saltwater and receives electric life force through the tentacles of others that stroke their found companion. The tentacles also find me. They do not sting; they are feathers that constantly caress.

When I return, I walk without disturbing the mass grave. It is just small death, melting.

Second Communion

At the gardens. Outside air is perfect-fresh, yet I choose damp imprisonment.
Into the Palm House.

It rains in here. Full and torpid drips splat my head.

Trees grow in this House. Not all friendly, some are stoically barbed. Others have obscenely large leaves, pornographically colored flowers.

How are they? Forced to grow up quickly and never having seen the outside, except as a faint glow behind opaque walls? Frustrated, wanton, passive survivors.

Though I admire these quiet beasts, I am not visiting them.

Breeze through the orchids with their drooping doughty faces. They implore why I slight them.

Finally permeate through a membrane of heavy plastic strips into...the Butterfly Room.

Initially just more plants. But small ambushes of flying color appear in the peripherals. And I am surrounded by the plants' distant rootless cousins.

Lepidoptera lights the clingy air with a myriad of wings.

Oval Zebras are lambent over little blue flowers. Red Admirals lope heavily in the air.

They are a happiness to watch. But watching is not enough. I need them to feel me.

You are not supposed to touch butterflies. Their fragile wings can crumble on our crude hands; their tasters can clog up with our distasteful oils.

But I am selfish.

A group of white flowers are popular with some Julia Longwings. I repent down to my knees and breathe closely.

Black veins slice through the Julia's orange sails. Their eyes are convex orbs, white stones in a burgundy pond. Proboscises dip into consenting pistils. I need them to see me.

The Julia's come very close, but do not land on my perfect blue flower-colored shirt. Coerciveness becomes a necessity.

There are a number of butterflies gathered at the window. While it seems obvious to anyone they are trying to escape, a docent explains they are simply attracted to the light.

Really? Then again, they were born in here. How is it to want something you don't even know exists? What do we want that we don't even know about...yet?

I approach the placid prisoners, and try to coax some Monarchs onto my finger. My encroachment brings wing pounding protest.

Then I see many of these butterflies’ dusty appendages are battered. Suddenly I feel guilty, a supporter of ignorant imprisonment.

My shame is silent, and I almost abort my misguided mission. But then I see him.

A Buckeye is quiet against the wall. He catches my eye with his many blue-tinged fake ones. I move closer, and he does not move at all.

My Buckeye's body is thicker and hairier than the others'. His black proboscis whorls in a perfect coil. He is magnificent, and a little aggressive looking. I am kind of afraid of him.

But I see an opportunity.

My hand is now right by his legs, and I gingerly move myself under him.

Unperturbed, he climbs onto my finger!

Shakingly slow, my hand moves towards my eyes. His sticker-legs are Velcroed onto me. His eye is a liquid black world. He unfurls his proboscis and probes me; the tiniest feather on my skin.

I literally cannot believe that I hurt him.

I am blessed for an eternal minute, and then he flies.

Exhale, smacked dumb with this new experience. The greenhouse world descends on me violently. Feverish droplets clog my bronchi. My thighs stick together in an ugly way. Rush towards the exit, ignore the plants' pleading leaves.

Outside, I eat the raw air. And think.

I had a first communion once. I recall stuffy air, stiff dress, stifled senses, formalized ritual.

I do not recall God.

And this very recent moment in the butterfly house? Air moist with life, easy clothes, jolted senses, the freedom to be there or not.

The question is not whether or not God exists.

The question is:

Was God in that moment?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Everywhere I Look, There is God"

This wise and beautiful statement was not made by anyone famous. It was made by Marc, a five year old in my class a couple of years ago. Every year I ask my kids to draw their own interpretations of God, making sure they know there is no wrong way and they can believe whatever they want. I have seen a person with a heart shaped head, clouds, monsters, burning buildings, nebulous light, and a picture of "God inside of me." My point is that God is indeed open to interpretation.

I also like the band Neutral Milk Hotel's take on the subject: "God is the place you will wait for the rest of your life."

As for me? I don't even know if I believe in God. Or gods. Or anything. I certainly have mixed, mostly not too fond feelings for most religions. But that is a whole other thing I won't get into now.

It may sound cheesy, but the closest way I can describe how I interpret God is as the Force from Star Wars. An all pervading energy that exists in every living thing and everywhere in the universe.

(You may be interested to know that Jedi is an actual religion in Britain! My Scottish friend Andy told me enough people wrote in "Jedi" on the Census that it became an official religion.)

What I do believe is that God, or the Force, or whatever there may be, certainly exists in certain moments. We have a great book at school called Where is God? that talks about all the places one could find God--at the beginning and end of someone's life, in hugs, tears, enjoying nature, etc. I agree with most of the moments, and I have had my share of them as well. For me they tend towards being out in nature. For example, one time while hiking in the Sierras, a little snake came slithering across a pond right up to me and my friend Anna. I swear it was looking right at us, completely unafraid. Another time I was "baptized" by a very powerful waterfall in New Zealand. It was kind of scary, but I felt insanely happy and refreshed afterwards. So many other moments could have a trace of God in them--being swept up in the energy of a concert, running a marathon, teaching someone all depends on what it could mean for you. Think about it, regardless of your relgious beliefs or non-beliefs.

I am casually working on a novel. It will hopefully be a memoir of my childhood spent literally at a barn with horses and all sorts of fascinating people who strongly influenced my life. Here I present one of the chapters to the public (well, whoever reads this) for the first time. Ashberry Hill, mentioned in the chapter, is the name of the barn. Any strange names like "Tango" you come across refer to horses. Terri is the owner of the barn and our instructor. Andi and Cathy were other girls who rode there, slightly older than me. Jenny is our vet. Arthur and Aurora are younger students. Dan and Em are my brother and sister. Hopefully everything makes sense.

The chapter focuses on a moment I was certain God or the Force was present, more that almost any other in my life. Enjoy, and I'd love any feedback.

Faultless Angel

The name was perfect. For that is exactly what she was. Sure, Faultless grinded her teeth when you brushed her, giving her the appearance of a grumpy old lady. But really, what else could you find wrong about this many miled equine?
Faultless had jumped countless obstacles in hunter-jumper competitions; ran hundreds of miles in competitive trails.
She had been many a child's and adult's first horse they ever rode, and given them the confidence to continue.
She had patiently endured heavier people awkwardly learning to post, put up with scared children unnecessarily pulling on her mouth.
She was the horse that got my mom to try riding again.
Faultless had never spooked, never ran away with anyone, never bucked or reared. The one "vice" she had was taking off at full gallop and soaring over a jump placed in front of her. Or even a ground pole. It was an amusing trick to play on unwary passengers.
Faultless was Grandma. She was Autumn's first companion. She was Grandma like Tango was Grandpa. She was part of the Ashberry Hill permanent family, part of what made us US.
And she was dying.

Terri had "retired" Faultless--stopped using her for riding--about a year ago. Since then, she had enjoyed a peaceful and easy existence hanging out with Autumn and Tango. We brushed her in our spare time, and gave her treats.
But then we noticed the change. Terri increased her food, wet it so she didn't have to chew, but weight wouldn't stay on her. She didn't bother to swish away flies. Her eyes looked duller.
One day Jenny was here giving some routine shots to other horses. Terri had Jenny take a look at Faultless. Aurora and I were cleaning tack as this happened. Steph walked in and said, "Is something wrong with Faultless? Why is Jenny examining her?"
"You know, Terri said was getting really thin and stuff," I replied.
"I know the real reason," said Aurora rather precociously. We looked at her, asking silently. "Mom is deciding if Faultless should be put to sleep or not."
Steph gasped. "Don't say that! There is nothing wrong with her!" Yet Steph's eyes showed doubt. I wanted to shout at Aurora too, but had been thinking the same thing.
"Everyone gets old and dies," said Aurora, calmly cleaning her bridle. “It’s sad, but it’s part of life.” I admired Aurora's matter of factness about the situation. I guessed that is what happens when you grow up a veterinarian's kid. We continued cleaning tack silently. A ball of anxious unhappiness started forming in my guts.

Evening. Diffused yellow light, warm breeze. Terri, Andi, and I sat on hay bales. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. “What’s going to happen with Faultless?!” I blurted, not hiding the emotion like I had planned.
Terri calmly looked at me. “Nothing,” she replied, smiling. I frowned. Maybe she didn’t know what I was talking about.
“But...wasn’t Jenny looking at her to see if...she should know...”
“Put to sleep?” Andi finished for me tentatively.
“I knew Faultless was coming near the end of her life,” Terri said. “I wanted to make sure she wasn’t in any pain. And Jenny said she wasn’t. Technically, there is nothing wrong with her. She’s just...old.”
“So we’re not putting her to sleep,” I stated, internal tensions relaxing.
“No, we’re not. Faultless is not in pain or sick. She is dying. We are going to allow her to die.” Terri did not seem to be in any distress about this.
“But isn’t it almost better to put her to sleep?” Andi asked. “Then she can just die peacefully, and...we can know when it will happen?” Andi's face was a worried question mark.
“That is what I was thinking before I talked to Jenny,” said Terri. “But Jenny and I started talking about Faultless’ life. That horse has done so much! Who are we to decide when her life ends? We don’t do that to people. Imagine if someone said, ’Ok Grandma, time to die! Goodbye!’”
Andi and I laughed despite the morbidity of the idea.
“Jenny said Faultless deserves the dignity of a normal death,” Terri continued. “And that is what we will give her.”

As I sat in my pink beanbag that evening, thoughts of Faultless, death, and the bizarre notion of choosing when someone’s life should end kept distracting me from my book. I had not yet experienced the natural death of a horse. Pasha’s untimely one was a horrid shock. He had to be put down; there was no question. Dead gerbils and hamsters had been discovered in their cages by me and Dan and Em, always an unpleasant surprise. But a horse, who we sometimes call our children, just dying? I wasn’t sure if this really was better than her being put to sleep. For me, at least. Would we see her die? What would it look like? The idea of seeing anything dead was scary, but something the size of horse as dead ran into terrifying territory. But for Faultless, I did agree with Terri and Jenny that a dignified death was the least we could allow her.

Faultless’ condition remained the same over the next couple weeks. My fear of her suddenly dropping dead eased somewhat. But the knowledge that it would happen soon seeped into everyone's thoughts and conversations, at the barn and at home.
As we were cleaning stalls on a Saturday morning, Andi put down her pitchfork and addressed anyone who could hear.
“You know, it is really weird!”
“What?” I asked.
“The whole concept of putting an animal to sleep. I mean, even the wording. You’re not letting them 'sleep'. You’re...killing them!”
I stepped out so we could see each other. “It’s true. But I mean, sometimes it is better to put down an animal. Like with Pasha.”
“Yeah, but Terri said there are a lot of barns that just put down horses because they can’t be ridden anymore. And that happens with race horses all the time.”
“It’s true,” I said thoughtfully. “Terri always says how lucky Bay is.” It is a known fact that Bay would have been considered damaged goods and a finacial drain anywhere else. He would be long dead most places. “Those places are so messed up!”
Terri walked into our conversation. “It’s easy to label such places as cheap or evil. But usually, these people love their horses. Most likely they were heartbroken as their horse was injected. They just believed they were doing the “kind” thing. But is the kind thing to do always the right thing to do?”
Andi and I sighed, and continued picking out stalls. I had a momentary panic that someday I would have to make a life or death decision for a living creature, and not have the guiding wisdom of people like Jenny and Terri. I silently thanked God for still being young and immature.

Later that week, on a trail ride after school. Horses on the buckle, striding eagerly towards home from the pond. I grabbed at leaves, starting to turn tapestries of colors before they became brittle and fell. Terri was in one of her provocative question moods.
She turned around on Court, who was in the lead as always. “Would you risk your own life to save another person’s?”
“Depends who it is,” said Andi, in the middle on Spidey. “Someone in my family, or one of my good friends, yes. One of the bitchy popular girls at school, probably not.”
I laughed. “Yeah, same with me.” Of course, I couldn’t comprehend what a situation like that would be like. I thought of myself of particularly moral, especially in the junior high years.
Terri stayed facing us, and smiled the slightly evil smile. “Now what if it was an animal? A pet or horse that you really love?”
“Hmm” pondered Andi. “You know, I think I would. I definitely would for Spidey,” she said as she patted him. “Would you?” I was always glad when someone asked Terri’s questions back at her.
“Not for any animal, but for someone like Court, I think so. You mentioned family, Andi, and our horses are like our family. There is no rule that says human life is more valuable. That is something we have decided.”
“You’re right!” I said. How does Terri think of these things? I always wished I had thought of them first. “It’s like we humans think we’re gods or something!”
“And it is kind of like we’re playing god when we put animals to sleep,” Andi said. God, what a confused species we were.

That night, Dan, Em, and I bounced on the trampoline under twilight. The bats flitted and chirped above us, gulping mosquitos. I decided to try out those questions on them.
“Would you save an animal’s life, even if you might die?” I asked panting, jumping and landing on my knees.
“Yes!” shouted Dan. “I could never let Heidi die. Right, Heidi?” he said to Heidi’s freckled face watching us through the window.
“Yeah me too!” I gasped as I ran around the edge of the trampoline and collapsed in the middle. Emile narrowly missed me as she finished a flip. “Em?”
Emilie let herself plop down, bouncing to stillness. “No,” she shrugged.
“Why not? You think humans are better than animals? Well, we’re really not! We just think we’re God or something!” Self-righteousness barreled through me.
“Yeah, we’re animals too,” said Dan, also sitting down. “We just think we’re the smartest. But who knows! Maybe we’re not.”
Emilie simply replied, “I’m just not like you people.” I did not have the will to push my beliefs. And we all silently contemplated the darkening sky.
Now that I’m older and very slightly wiser, I’m more in the league with my sister. I do still believe humanity in general sees itself despots to the planet. I don’t usually believe one life is more deserving to live than another. But I’m sure my family or other loved ones would be pretty pissed if I sacrificed myself to save an animal, even a beloved one. Have I become more selfish? Perhaps. Having now experienced the death of humans close to me, I have realized that life is a near death experience for all of us, at every moment.

The following Saturday seemed perfectly normal. Stalls, ride, hay, water tubs. As I was filling the small paddock tub, thinking about not much, Andi came by to put Panga out. "Faultless is out of her stall," she casually mentioned.
Okay...I thought, not sure why she told me. Then I realized that we always left her door open because she never left. But now she had! This was weird. I went down to the barn to investigate.
Sure enough, Faultless was standing outside of Feather's stall. It occured to me how amazingly ancient she looked. Her broad ribcage pressed up against loose skin. She was fuzzy even though it was summer, never having shed her winter coat. She barely had a mane or tail to speak of. Her eyes were tired, yet still wise and calm. And she carried herself with a resolute dignity.
Faultless stood there for a while. Was she saying something to Feather? Then with creaking joints she turned and faced down the aisle. And a minute later, as if she had unlimited time, walked down the aisle.
Arthur had been sitting on the bench and jumped up shouting, "Faultless! She's loose, she's coming this way!" I couldn't help but laugh at him, as Faultless was not exactly charging out of control.
Terri barely glanced at her. "She's fine. Let her be." And continued brushing Court.
I watched Faultless. What would she do now? I had a feeling she would stop at the end of the aisle. And sure enough she did. Faultless stood there for a while, perhaps communing with Court, Spider, and the others. She turned in a 360 degree circle, taking almost a half hour.
And so this continued. Faultless went to the shed row next, near Dallas, Paradox, and Autumn. I sensed something way bigger than me, way more than I might understand, was going on. Rather numbly, I filled up water tubs and put hay out. Terri and the others went out on a ride.

Cathy and I were the only ones there. It was uncomfortably quiet. I wished for anyone else to be there. I would have even welcomed Arthur swinging on the crossties. From the mares' paddock, I could see into the shed row. Faultless was ambling towards her stall. Then with trembling care, she lied down.
For once I wished there was more to do, but all was left was sweeping the aisle. I did so roboticly, wanting and not wanting to know what was happening in Faultless' stall.
I didn't have to wait much longer. Cathy walked in. "I think Faultless is dying."
Was I afraid? Of course. I had never seen anything more than an insect die in front of me. But I had to look.
Faultless' entire body twitched and convulsed, and she took gulping breaths. Already her eyes were glazing over. Yet I didn't get the feeling she was in any pain. The strange behavior she showed all day was confirmed--she was saying goodbye.
I surprised myself at how unafraid I was. Faultess was probably not afraid. She was surrounded by those who loved her, she got to say goodbye--isn't that what we all want when it's our turn to go?
Suddenly I remembered I was supposed to put Paradox out. I knew Faultless would die any moment. Should I stay and watch? I decided not to. And honestly, I regret it. What a powerful and honored moment to see a living being's last breath...
Faultless was dead when I came back. Cathy was still standing there. There was no question that she could be sleeping--such a stillness in death. Her eyes were empty. It was just a body, no longer Faultless.
Just then the rest of the group came back. I hung back, and Cathy told them the news. A collective sad sigh came from them. All of a sudden I was hit by an onslaught of memories. Faultless befriending Autumn back at Withington's. My mom and I riding Faultless and Autumn together. Me riding Faultless in a spectator class at a 4-H show, as she calmly trotted around the ring as if a show was nothing.
I sank back against the wall of the shed row and started crying. A friend of many years was gone. Strangely, this was not the usual gasping cry of grief. Of course I was upset, yet I also felt a relieved peace. We had allowed her a natural death. There was an aching beauty to it.

At the end of the day, we talked about Faultless' last journey and her amazing life. We were quiet, and sadly smiling.
I didn't realize back then what a gift it was to have compassionate, wise adults like Jenny and Terri in our lives. But I never forget it now. If they had decided to put Faultless to sleep, she would not have had the chance to say goodbye--for I do truly believe that is what she did. And me and the other young people at the barn would not have had the chance to witness such a beautiful and extraordinary event. Allowing Faultless to die naturally was an enormous gift to her and all of us from Terri and Jenny. They were also allowing us to grow and expand our sense of the world.
I've always had a shaky relationship with God. I don't know if I believe in God or not. I feel that way to this day. But there were some days something else, some greater force or power, seemed present. And Faultless' last day was one of those. Whether it was a god or some sort of ever present energy, it was there that day. Incredible moments like this and many others that happened at Ashberry Hill resonate with me still.


Monday, June 30, 2008

An Album in My Mind

Kids really do rock.

And I don't just mean that they're cool, although that is true as well. This past week, I saw a couple instances of young people truly rocking it out in their own bands.

One is my good friend Daniel, who stars in a band called Rehab. They have songs called "The End of Childhood" and "Electric Tomato." He is inspired by The Beatles and the Velvet Underground, and enjoys music with lots of distortion.

My adult friend Ray was the teacher for a Rock Camp, and I just saw their final performance. The kids were incredible and played songs such as "I'd Rather Rock" (who wouldn't?) An all girl band played "Anything But Those Girls," and completely kicked ass.

Where was all this when I was a tormented and picked on middle schooler?? Oh right, I was in regular band playing the clarinet. Yes, I was a nerd, but at least safe among other nerdy music lovers. Music really is a salvation for many.

Now I am involved in a band today, of sorts. It isn't exactly...real. This band, complete with albums and songs, is in my mind. It came to me one day when hiking with my good friend Annie and her dog Chopper. She brought along a box of Scoobie Snacks for him. There was a beef flavored Shaggy, a chicken flavored Scooby, etc. Well, one was a silly green cheese flavored ghost. Annie said, "Chopper, do you want a cheese flavored ghost?" And we both looked at each other in instant enlightenment. We saw Cheese Flavored Ghost form into a number one single in our minds. And the rest soon followed.

The band's name is Loop of Henle. I did not make that up--it is a body part. A vein that is an actual loop in your kidneys. There are lots of funny names for body parts; Vas Deferens and Basal Ganglia are also great. But Loop of Henle is just magical.

I know this is extremely random; thanks for hanging in there.

I picture Loop of Henle being kind of indie, electronic sounding. Think Fujiya and Miyagi, maybe a little Morcheeba or Massive Attackish. Except they don't take themselves too seriously and a couple songs are pretty ridiculous.

There are two albums, and the songs on them keep evolving. Some songs relate to some experience in my life, so I give a little explanation if that is the case. Here they are.

Breakfast for Dinner

1. Pre-Party Anxiety (something I get often)
2. Karmic Suicide
3. You have Brainworms
4. It Comes in Waves
5. Cricket and Pogo (the cottages on Cape Cod where I spent childhood summers)
6. Meet at the Sahara Tent (referring to the Coachella experience my friends and I shared for 5 years)
7. The Bakerloo Line
8. Space for My Mind (Annie's contribution)

There is even an album cover for this one. I "commissioned" one of Ray's kids to draw a picture of forest animals eating pancakes at night under the trees. It's rad. I think the hits on this album are "Karmic Suicide" and "Space for My Mind."

Cheese Flavored Ghost

1. Cheese Flavored Ghost!
2. No Pants
3. Emotional Incest
4. Have Your Cake and Screw it, Too (something I believe we have all been on both sides of)
5. Pick Your Pace (a game we played with the horses back home--basically letting them gallop at full throttle while we held on and prayed)
6. The Church of Zeitgeist (the bar in SF that is basically a church to me and my friends)
7. Fantasy Fodder
8. I Dreamt I ate at the French Laundry and they Served Chicken Nuggets (A real dream--French Laundry is a restaurant north of SF, one of the best in the world)

Annie said she could draw a really silly, ghetto ghost for the cover of this one. But then Daniel had the great idea of a ghostly piece of cheese floating in mid air. I picture it in the middle of a cocktail party in the middle of very confused guests. We'll fit both images in somehow.

The song Cheese Flavored Ghost! is very silly, kind of a mock metal song. Still, I think it would be a hit. I sense the other big hit would be Emotional Incest. As you can see, this album is a bit raunchier and darker. I guess things were darker and raunchier for the "band" during this time period. More songs and possibly albums will come.

People have asked when this band will become real. Well, being as I don't know how to write music and don't have any bandmates...probably never! But I do enjoy this album in my mind. And who knows, some of it could become real. Daniel said he would write and perform "Cheese Flavored Ghost!" Think of it as the Velveteen Rabbit of albums. It is real if you believe it real.

I'm sure you're feeling very inspired by this to go start your own album in your mind. If not, then at least go and support your friend's band, whether they are formed of children or adults, big or just starting out. Chances are they have something to say.

Thank you to my enormously talented friends Ray, Annie, and Daniel for their help and inspiration with the Loop of Henle.

About Me

My photo
San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."